Nanofoods!

This year Heston Blumenthal featured at number 73 in ‘The Science List’ drawn up by Eureka, The Times’ science magazine. Heston has clearly demonstrated to popular culture how science and food are integrally linked, but why are we yet to incorporate one of the latest exciting new technologies, nanotechnology, with our food to enhance our culinary experience?

For one thing, nanotechnology is still an emerging technology and is being treated very cautiously. People are still reeling, having been stung by the mistakes of GM and stem cells in the past. If the effects of nanofoods are not thoroughly investigated, then there could be severe backlash if even a minor problem arises. Despite this cautionary approach, some researchers are convinced that combining nanotechnology with the food industry could result in massive benefits.

The properties of particles and structures at the nano scale, that which are up to 100 billionths of a meter, are increasingly of interest in many industries. Due to their miniscule size they have an increased surface area to volume ratio, making them more chemically reactive as well as altering their optical, electrical and/or magnetic behaviour. There are already many particles at the nano scale in conventional foods, but the growing interest lies in developing novel structures and particles to give food specific properties.

It has been suggested that ‘functional foods’ could be developed; everyday foods with additional properties that allow them to carry medicines and supplements. In a world concerned with increasing food production to match the rapidly expanding global population, increasing the nutritional value of food already available would be extremely positive.

Kraft foods are widely believed to be at the forefront of nanofood development, having established their Nanotek Consortium consisting of 15 universities and research labs in 2000. It is thought that Kraft’s focus is interactive foods, those which can recognise and adjust to a person’s nutritional needs or even change flavour using nanoparticles. Although this sounds more like science fiction than science, foods containing nanoparticles are already sold in countries around the world. In Australia, nanocapsules are used to add Omega-3 fatty acids to a popular white bread brand in order to provide nutritional benefits without making the bread taste of fish!

Nanotechnology is and can be used in all aspects of the food industry from agriculture to food processing, food packaging to supplement encapsulation. If there are potentially so many benefits, why aren’t nanofoods more widespread? In the UK, if used in novel foods, then the Food Standards Agency (FSA) would have to approve it under the ‘Novel Food Regulation’. Whilst there are no specific criteria laid out in the FSA assessment, there is a specific safety assessment and evaluation of consumer concerns and ethical issues. The FSA has carried out research specifically into nanofoods; this year they have commissioned research projects “to look at the ways in which nanomaterials enter the human body and what happens to them once they are there.”

The fact that the FSA is commissioning research such as this indicates how little is known about the downstream effects of ingesting nanoparticles. It is clear that more research needs to be done before there is a widespread launch. However, in the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report in nanotechnology published earlier this year the food industry was criticised about being too secretive about its use of nanotechnology. Lord Krebs, chairman of the inquiry, said the industry “wants to keep a low profile” to avoid controversy… They got their fingers burnt over the use of GM crops and so they want to keep a low profile on this issue. We believe that they should adopt exactly the opposite approach. If you want to build confidence you should be open rather than secretive.”  

It seems that this technology still has some way to go. But, once all these hurdles are cleared and nanofoods are being widely used, it seems inevitable that we will see Heston creating Willy Wonka style foods. Oh I can’t wait until then!

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