They say that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. What about what you can’t see? Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating particles smaller than a billionth of a metre. At these sizes, materials can be used in new ways and some of them even change properties – silver becomes antimicrobial for instance and can be used to treat wounds.
Additives containing nanoparticles have been used for years, for example silica as an anti-caking agent to keep powders flowing freely, or even in a milkshake to enhance the taste.
The food industry’s current and potential uses of nanotech are discussed in a new report from the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK parliament.
The hope is that nanotechnologies can be used to create foods with new flavours and textures, and also healthier food products with reduced salt, fat or sugar content or increased vitamin and nutrient content.
One of the most promising technologies for doing this is nano-encapsulation. According to its supporters, nano-encapsulation offers the ability to deliver smaller quantities of ingredients in a way that maintains flavour and texture properties of the food while reducing the content of salt and fats. Flavourings and micronutrients could also be protected until ready for release into the food, thus maintaining the quality of the ingredient for longer shelf-life.
On the other hand, in their evidence to the Committee, Friends of the Earth said that the addition of nano-additives such as nano-encapsulated omega-3 or iron fortification to junk foods could enable them to be marketed for health values.
Nanotechnology could also influence the way food is processed in industrial plants. Nanomaterials could be used to develop anti-microbial and anti-stick surfaces to reduce the risk of contamination and to reduce the tendency for machinery to clog and have to be stopped for cleaning.
Nanotech isn’t used in agriculture yet, and in the UK the development of nanoscale pesticides is still at the research and development phase. Things seem more advanced in the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency is considering three applications for licences for the use of pesticides manufactured using nanotechnologies.
Apart from the technical aspects and potential, nanotechnology is interesting for the light it sheds on societal concerns about science, technology, risk and trust.
The Lords’ report is critical of the food industry’s secrecy, stating that it’s hard to know how much nanotechnology is actually employed. The Lords say the food industry drew the wrong conclusion from the GM debate. Fear of a public backlash has lead the industry to be too secretive about their nanotech research and applications. However, the suspicion that they’re up to no good could lead to exactly the reaction they’re hoping to avoid.
The UK criticism is echoed by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. According to PEN, it is “currently unknown how many nanotechnology-enabled food products are on the market that are not clearly identified”.