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15 January 2010 NANO Magazine - Issue 13

Nanotechnology in Food & Drink

Nanotechnology is becoming an increasingly important means of producing new and different products for food companies
Nanotechnology is becoming an increasingly important means of producing new and different products for food companies.
Image Credit: NANO Magazine.

Food companies need to produce products that are different from those of their competitors, and nanotechnology is increasingly a key means of achieving this. For example, product differentiation may be achieved through some foods having specific nanoencapsulated nutrients or flavours, or by being wrapped in packaging containing nanoparticles that will kill bacteria and thus extend the shelf life. Other nano novelties could include foods that taste ‘fatty”, but are not, for the treatment of obesity; and sports foods and drinks containing nanoscale supplements that speed absorption into the bloodstream.

In essence, nanotechnology holds out a great deal of promise for the food industry, for consumers, for health and for sustainability. It may also hold some hidden threats. Foods, like humans, are defined at the molecular level, and many traditional foodstuffs have a natural nano component. Some food companies have developed novel foods by understanding and modifying their structure at the nanoscale. Others use encapsulation techniques to bring novelty, or to meet a consumer need. In the main these techniques pose no risks – the reasons why are explained by Frans Kampers in his interview. However, some food companies are using what Frans terms ‘persistent nanoparticles’ and these may require further study, understanding and possible regulation.

Many of the problems surrounding nano in food can be said to relate to fear and ignorance. The fear by those companies making safe and beneficial ‘nano’ products that they will be tainted by those who are not. In some ways, the food companies are their own worst enemies, preferring to maintain the status quo of misinformation and denial, leaving the public in ignorance. This is building up the likelihood of an eventual and perhaps partly undeserved backlash.

First, Kathy Groves and Pretima Titoria from Leatherhead Food Research explain the challenges and opportunities of nano in food. Their view is that applications are less developed in foodstuffs than in other areas of nanotechnology but anticipate that there will be a rapid growth in this sector over the next few years. They also discuss likely risks, and explain some of the issues surrounding engineered or natural nanoparticles, giving examples of where these can be found in products that are already on the market.

Douglas Robinson from the Institute of Nanotechnology discusses current issues surrounding the regulation of nanotechnology in food, and also touches on ethical issues and on public engagement, emphasizing the need for giving consumers a voice. Robinson picks up on another theme addressed by Frans Kampers – namely the difficulties of labelling, which has to be balanced by the need to keep consumers informed with the need to avoid stigmatizing of nano enabled products.

As mentioned, we have an insightful interview from Frans Kampers, an expert in nanotechnology in food and packaging. Kampers co-ordinates research in Wageningen UR (Netherlands) on the applications of nanotechnology in food, and is director of BioNT, the centre for BioNanotechnology, also located in Wageningen. In the interview, Dr Kampers discusses exactly where nanotechnology is being used in foods. He provides insights into delivery systems, smart packaging and also shares his visions for the future of nano in food. He addresses the perennial theme of food sustainability and how to maintain freshness. He expands on how nanotechnology in packaging can contribute to sustainability through maintaining freshness and reducing waste. Dr Kampers concludes by calling for more knowledge on the action of persistent nanoparticles in food, leading to informed regulation – so critical to enabling the benefits of nanotechnology to be realised.

This theme of nanotechnology and packaging is enlarged upon in Jim Johnston’s article, whose important work in the University of Wellington focuses on novel packaging that can buffer fresh food against variations in heat during transport, so important for sustainability and the economic survival of countries that depend on exporting fresh fruit and vegetables. There is even an application here for the transport of perishable medications.

Sarah Haeuser and Jurek Vengels of Friends of the Earth Germany have provided an article emphasizing ethical issues regarding nanofoods and nano applications in agriculture. They discuss possible risks associated with engineered, persistent nanoparticles for human health and the environment. More importantly they also raise the question - who will benefit from these technologies? and discuss the additional strains nano could pose for developing countries. Furthermore, they highlight the urgent need for adequate safety testing, sufficient labelling and comprehensive regulations.

Now for something different: Nanotechnology in Denmark and Sweden, our profiled countries, spans research institutions across both countries. There is a new nanotech research collaboration initiative on the way called ‘Nano Connect Scandinavia’, which brings together eight universities and institutes in Denmark and Sweden, aiming not only to increase transfer of knowledge between academia and industry but to strengthen the region’s position as one of the major nano hubs in Europe. Essentially, the collaboration between Denmark and Sweden, explored at length in NANO magazine, is a model for other small countries on how working and researching together can lead to gaining an international research reputation. Other topics covered in this issue include sensors, sunscreens, sustainability and society.

Tiju Joseph, of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) discusses how nanotechnology can advance sensor technology, looking at the healthcare, automotive, oil and gas as well as defence and security industries. He outlines the significant impacts that this technology is expected to have and explains the difficulties that lie ahead before the technology will be fully established in the market.

John F. Elter, of the prestigious College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, University of Albany in the USA, discusses how nanotechnology can rise to stardom in the field of sustainability, due to its vast range of potential benefits. He explains possible applications that range from nanomembrane filters for cleaning drinking water and groundwater, from nanosensors that monitor the presence of the smallest concentrations of pollutants to nanotechnology-driven solar cells and bimetallic fuel cell catalysts which are two times more efficient than existing catalysts. Various applications that give us a flavour of how nanotechnology can help to save our planet in numerous ways.

Finally, we bring you a wonderful piece of Nanoart from Frans Holthuysen, an electron microscopist at Philips Research Laboratories, Eindhoven, who has gained an international reputation with his truly exceptional works.

Source: NANO Magazine - Issue 13 /...

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