Nanotechnology, the new buzz-word in science, is precision engineering at atomic levels, and since a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, a human hair 80,000 nanometers wide, you can appreciate how tiny this scale actually is. Physics and chemistry both change, dramatically, at these scales, common substances behaving very differently, many with startling new properties. There are, up to now, no foods on sale in Europe, officially at least, containing nanomaterials, but food industry moguls think that big money is to be made from it..
Processed-food giant Kraft are busy working towards ‘programmable food’. One product being a colourless, tasteless drink that the consumer will design after buying it. Colour and flavour the drink should be, and nutrients in it, will be defined by a correctly-tuned microwave transmitter, bought from food producers, of course, that will activate nano-capsules within the liquid.
Each of these is a mere 0.002 % 2 the width of a single hair. hair – containing all the chemicals needed for whatever drink you choose, the relevant nano-capsules dissolving, while all the rest pass unused through your body. Every major food producer on the planet is investing in nano-technology, worth an estimated $20billion in 2010, in world food market terms
There is, already, a prototype chewing gum being introduced to the market, using nano-capsules to generate the sensation of eating real chocolate, as you chew, and a hazelnut cappucino version is on the way, this only being the start of major advances coming our way in the near future, but are the general public really ready for such radical new food and drink, and is it really safe?.
The BSE scare of a decade ago, and more recent worries over GM foods have left the general public quite skeptical of their food being messed with, so gene technology seems more threatening to them than does the consumption of fatty, unhealthy foodstuffs, and the fact that there is a distinct lack of proper assessment, where nanotechnology and food is concerned, may just be too off-putting.
Materials do act differently at molecular levels, and nano-particles smaller than viruses can cross natural barriers in the body, entering cells, or via the liver into the bloodstream, and even through cell wall the brain is surrounded by. Potentially very toxic chemicals will be able go where never before able to, and since free nano-particles, inhaled, are known to be capable of going straight to the brain, will the benefits offered by this technology outweigh the risks involved?
To date, even in the USA, only three food products that use this technology are on sale, though well-established US company Nanoceuticals market a Vitamin B12 spray by Nutrition-by-Nanotech, nano-sized vitamins in the spray absorbed directly through the mucal cells. One food item is Nanotea, sold buy a Chinese firm, containing nanos giving ten times the volume of selenium found in green tea, thus highly beneficial.
Canola Activa Oil, also available, is from Israel, delivering chemicals in rapeseed cooking oi, via nanos, that block cholesterol, and also the SlimShake chocolate drink, a powdered beverage using nanos to cluster cocoa cells, thus cutting out the need for any sugar to be included in the ingredient list.
Nanofoods can, we are told, be more tasty, last longer and provide greater nutrition, but long term effects of consumption are obviously unknown. There are some particles in use, nanosilver and silica foe example that cannot be broken down by digestion, and so could, possibly build up within the body, causing health problems, eventually. As yet, no regulations exist for the compulsory labeling of food containing nano-particles, something the public may find worrisome.
Studies on these food-stuffs have shown that ingested nanoparticles cause damage to DNA, possibly leading to heart and brain diseases, as well as cancer, and even more worryingly, nanoparticles can be absorbedt into the body from simply touching products that contain them. One 2005 study in showed zinc oxide nanoparticles to be toxic to human lung cells, another demonstrating nanosilver as a killer of liver and brain cells in rats.
The problem is that consumers could eating nanofoods every day without ever knowing, because there is no compulsory reporting of this technology use by food manufacturers to the authorities. Estimates have revealed that, by 2015 40% or more food products will be based on this scary technology, whose true effects are not yet known, nor will be for some years. Already, fruits such as apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers and others get a thin, wax-like nanocoating sprayed on them to extend shelf-life, enhancing color and flavor.
Well-known names, Nestle, Hershey, Campbell’s Soup, Heinz and Kraft all have in-house nanotech research labs working flat out, though they will all vigorously deny it. Nano tech packaging has been a reality for a while now, and there is no doubt that nano-foods will gradually become the mainstay of the human diet, but there are an awful lot of unanswered questions out there in the ether, and we have to hope that pursuit of this technology is the right way to go forward. I personally think that the idea of a programmable beverage is just that little but TOO spooky.