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Still more questions than answers on nanotechnology in food

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 09-Feb-2011

Consumer acceptance of nanotechnology hinges on finding answers to a number of questions regarding its safety, benefits, and regulatory oversight, says a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Affairs


The article, by US Department of Agriculture economist Jean Buzby, of the department’s Agricultural Research Service, outlines some of the key questions that still surround the use of nanotechnology in food which, without answers, could stand in the way of successful commercialization of the technology.

In particular, Buzby highlights the current lack of a global definition of nanotechnology as a factor that could complicate potential labeling of nano foods and packaging.

She quotes the definition of nanotechnology given by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, as “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100nm, where unique phenomena enable novel applications”.

Buzby said: “However, this current nanometer range is an arbitrary measure and was not set on any real meaning or relationship between particle size and toxicological effects or kinetics, such as chemical reaction rates…The lack of a widely accepted definition of nanotechnology complicates the development of appropriate labeling to inform consumers.”

Current consumer products

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) keeps what is widely seen as the most accurate inventory of commercial nanotechnology applications. However, it is not comprehensive, with listed items claimed by manufacturers rather than independently certified as using nanotechnology. As of July 29, 2009, the inventory included about 800 products, including 74 food and beverage applications, and three foods.

The three food and beverage applications were an Israeli canola oil, said to inhibit cholesterol transportation into the bloodstream and allow greater penetration of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals; a Chinese tea, said to provide health benefits; and a US chocolate shake drink, said to use a form of cocoa that enhances flavor, thereby eliminating the need for excess sugar.


Buzby said that the potential benefits of nanotechnology, for industry, consumers and society as a whole, need to be communicated. Such benefits could include improved food safety and security through new materials to detect pathogens and reduce food spoilage; use of the technology to make supplements more bioavailable or potent; development of biodegradable food contact materials; and job creation.

The article added that there needs to be much more investment in research looking at the technology’s safety. It said that current annual global spending on nanotechnology is around $9bn, but only about 4 percent ($39m) of that is used to analyze potential risks to human health and the environment.

Buzby concluded: “Achieving safe and widely accepted commercial uses of nanotechnology will require concerted effort across countries, Federal agencies, disciplines and sectors. Ultimately, the success or failure of nanotechnology may hinge on how and the extent that these challenges are overcome.”

Source: The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Vol. 44, No. 3, 2010, pp. 528-545

“Nanotechnology for Food Applications: More Questions Than Answers”

Author: Jean C. Buzby

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