The Future Is Now: Nanotechnology
November 5, 2007
By Rob McMahon
How nanotechnology will radically change the food industry – the first of a four-part series.
The word is straight out of science fiction: Nanotechnology.
By now, most people have heard of it, but few are aware of its implications, especially in the food industry. This article is the first in a series outlining the current state of nanotechnology in the baking industry – exploring implications, commercial applications, and steps towards regulation.
Simply put, nanotechnology is a kind of sub-atomic or micro-scale engineering. Rather than working with engines or bridges, scientists focus on structures that are smaller than 100 nanometres. To put the size into context, a nanometre is one-billionth of a metre; an eyelash is 100,000 nanometres wide. Since they are so small, these structures have unique material properties, allowing them to be converted into “nanomachines”, which can be designed to perform specific functions, such as repelling bacteria.
Many scientists believe nanotechnology will greatly benefit food manufacturing. These benefits range from energy-efficient food processing to stronger, lighter packaging, improved food safety, more environmentally friendly materials, and foods that can more effectively deliver nutrients to consumers.
According to Professor Paul Takhistov, at the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University, a world expert in the field, manufacturing at the nano- or atomic level is only three decades old. While we still have little experience with nanotechnology and its applications, except in the case of electronic systems, Dr. Takhistov believes the field has the potential to make even more of an impact than the discovery of electricity and genetic engineering.
“The field of applied nanotechnology is expanding extremely rapidly,” said Dr. Takhistov. “When people first started talking about food nanotechnology three or four years ago, it was like sci-fi – more like dreaming than real,” he said. “Now all the major food companies are actively investing in nanotechnology-related projects.”
While many researchers predict nanotechnology will radically change the food industry, allowing for a host of benefits, most suppliers and producers are not aware when the technology will become commercially available or cost effective. According to an article on FoodNavigator.com, a report released by U.K. research group, Cientifica, concluded that in the next six years, four areas will see commercial implementation, creating a $5.8 billion U.S. market. These main areas encompass “smart” packaging, food safety devices that detect harmful contaminates, new production methods that convert food ingredients into consumable products, and additives that enhance the qualities of products. Cientifica estimated some 400 companies are currently applying nanotechnology to food.
“Primarily, the commercial applications of food have been in packaging and nutraceuticals,” Dexter Johnson, Cientifica’s conference director, wrote in an e-mail interview. He pointed to nanoclays, added as a filler to polymers, to create plastic containers that block gasses from permeating them.
“As a result, you now have a plastic container for beer, and the beer stays fresh,” he wrote. “That said, consumers are not generally aware that they are now able to drink beer out of a plastic container because of a nanoclay used as a filler in the polymer.”
However, others say that nanotechnology will likely not have such a large impact, at least initially. Dr. Michelle Barry, senior vice-president of Consumer Insights and Trends, The Hartman Group, a U.S. market research firm, said that nanotechnology doesn’t follow the trajectory of food culture.
“The trend is towards food authenticity and aspects of real food,” she said. “Nanotechnology might be perceived as being highly processed or created in a laboratory,…It’s somewhat a niche market – it’s not this huge mainstream thing that will displace everything else.”
At present, consumers who are curious or aware of nanotechnology seem suspicious. A recent survey, conducted by The Hartman Group, found after contacting 512 people in an online poll that “consumers seem reluctant to accept the notion that foods might be tinkered with at an unseen molecular level.” In fact, an article in the firm’s HartBeat newsletter stated that some companies are going as far as to label their products “nano-free.”
InHartBeat, Dr. Barry wrote that nanotechnology will make a large impact if it moves into the food industry, potentially becoming a “hot-button” issue like GMOs were when first introduced. She is quoted as saying that at the moment, consumers – especially those with an interest in health and wellness – see nanotechnology as a negative. She said such consumers want to be sure they know what they’re putting on and in their bodies, and anything that ends in “technology” tends to have negative connotations.
“In general, consumers don’t have any idea there’s anything called nanotechnology – it’s a new topic,” she said in a phone interview. “I think consumers who are very conscious of health and wellness are quite a bit skeptical and fearful of what nanotechnology means for their food. It’s too unknown, too pervasive and too invasive.”
Along with consumer skepticism, nanotechnology is expensive. Research is in its early stages, and with practical application far off, costs remain high. While it will take time for nanotechnology manufacturing applications to become cost effective, many food companies, including Kraft, Heinz and Danone are already investing in research.
Johnson wrote that nanotechnology provides a solution to consumer demand for fresh, convenient, flavourful food, as well as helping producers prevent food contamination. At present, solutions to these issues are based on expensive and time-consuming processes – lab analysis on a case-by-case basis. Nanotechnology can offer solutions that are cheaper, faster and ever-present.
“The food industry wants to manage on an atomic level, that is: manage the food’s texture, component breakdown during eating, flavour release and the encapsulation of nutritious components,” he wrote. “Nanoscale approaches can offer extra control on these processes and on the nanostructure of the food product.”
Dr. Takhistov said that one draw for major food companies to invest in nanotechnology is economics. The industry constantly demands new formulations, and creating them through nanotechnology is cheaper in the long run than investing in new capital equipment. Companies don’t need to buy machines if a tiny pill can perform the same function.
“The research is expensive, but after it’s gone to the commercial phase, it’s not as bad,” said Dr. Takhistov. “A company can add a couple grams of nano powder or emulsion loaded with health-promoting substances without changing anything in its manufacturing plant…Changing a formula is much easier than changing equipment.”
As well, some products benefiting from molecular manufacturing could be developed in the short term. These might include foods that effectively deliver vitamins or other beneficial components to consumers through “functional foods.” While some functional foods are already on the market, increasing research in nano-sized medicine and nutrient delivery vehicles will broaden the breadth and capabilities of products available.
“Food may replace medicine, for example in managing chronic diseases like obesity,” said Dr. Takhistov.
Packaging is another field that will be greatly affected – and possibly improved – by nanotechnology. Packaging will no longer only contain products – it can also capture the history of a product, change its temperature to keep products fresh longer, communicate with appliances and help track the product through the supply chain.
Despite these benefits, the industry is also conscious of the importance of regulation – especially in such a new field. There has already been debate over the environmental impacts of nanotechnology. Some scientists are urging the Canadian government to examine the safety of the technology, and have suggested that new laws and regulations may need to be developed to address the issue before public uncertainty damages its reputation, and curb and control unsafe practices.
Johnson wrote that NGOs such as the ETC Group have been proactive in addressing the issue of applying nanotechnologies to foods, and that industry and government alike are keen on examining regulation to avoid a situation such as the one that occurred with genetically modified food in Europe. However, he pointed out, that even without regulation, at present a handful of food and nutrition products that contain unseen, unlabelled and unregulated nanoscale additives are commercially available.
“Is it safe to add nanoparticles to foods?” he wrote. “The short answer to the question is ‘no one knows for sure.’ This issue has to be confronted head-on by either regulators or the scientific community.”
Dr. Takhistov noted that this is a very complicated issue, but is optimistic in his research so far that the materials seem safe, though he also said regulation is necessary.
“I haven’t seen any scientific evidence that nano materials are more toxic than other materials,” he said. “[However,] to ensure proper acceptance of the new technology by the public we need some regulation.”
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