Smaller Still – Nanoparticles in food

Commercial scale production of inorganic nanoparticles Takuya Tsuzuki International Journal of Nanotechnology, 6 (2009) 567

Research on nanoparticles constitutes one of the most thriving fields in current scientific query. As the illustration above shows, nanoparticles – usually defined as a small object that behaves as a whole unit in terms of its transport and properties – are being explored for use in a vast array of industries. Some of the applications are extremely promising – using ‘cloaked’ nanoparticles that can bypass human immune systems, for example, to target specific cancer clusters in the body rather than bombarding the entire system with chemotherapy. Water purification technologies, such as using nanoparticles to facilitate the removal of fossil fuels, could have tremendous impact.

But, as with so many of our advancing technologies, the applications sometimes outpace our knowledge of the effects.

A case in point: The presence of a variety of nanoparticles in food. A corporate accountability group, As You Sow, carried out a survey of 2500 companies in the food processing industry regarding their use and presence of nanoparticles. 26 companies responded, including PepsiCo, Whole Foods and the corporate parent of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. From a New York Times piece on Feb. 5:

“Only 14 said they don’t use nanomaterials, and of those only two had any policies on the use of nanomaterials,” said Andy Behar, chief executive of As You Sow. Various food companies have said they are interested in nanotechnology, which can help make products creamier without additional fat, intensify and improve flavors and brighten colors. Their small size allows nanoparticles to go places in the body where larger particles cannot and enter cells. They have been found in the blood stream after ingestion and inhalation, and while research on their health effects is limited, studies have shown them to have deleterious effects on mice and cells.

“We’re not taking a no nano position,” Mr. Behar said. “We’re saying just show it’s safe before you put these things into food or food packaging.”

He noted that the European Union requires labeling of foods containing nanomaterials and that the European Food Safety Authority has published guidance for assessing nanomaterials in food and animal feed. Last April, the Food and Drug Administration issued an unusually emphatic statement on nanomaterials, saying it did not have enough data to determine the safety of nanomaterials in food. The Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating various nanoparticles used in consumer products, like sunscreens.

My assumption is that the simplest way to avoid this issue until further studies have been done would be not to consume pre-packaged and heavily processed foods. I know that’s easier said than done. I am a huge advocate of cooking from scratch as much as possible, but I acknowledge that not everyone feels the same way. Also, our current food chain model is built to a large extent on the manufacture and sale of processed foods – even if everyone were to decide today to only buy fresh foods and produce, there would be a massive economic impact and supply bottleneck. Still – if I am cooking my own food with known ingredients, at least I can be pretty sure there won’t be any titanium oxide nanoparticles included to improve the brightness of my egg whites or mashed potatoes, or nano-enhancers to give a more ‘carroty’ flavor to otherwise dull and flavorless carrots in a stew.

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