This article was published in VolTA magazine, and is written by Marianne Barland (project manager at the Norwegian Board of Techology)
The trillion-euro food industry is keeping quiet about its nanotechnology research but, regulated or not, products will be coming to a fridge near you. Is that steak trying to tell you something?
Longer shelf life, intelligent packaging, and healthier or ‘functional’ food carrying medicines or supplements are among the possibilities offered by nanotechnology in the food sector. But the food industry itself remains secretive about how nanotechnology is being used which is raising the fears of EU citizens. Recent European TA studies stress the importance of transparent and credible information on nanoproducts. The need for information with regard to individual concerns and perceived risks should be taken seriously.
This spring, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug administration) issued new draft guidance on the use of nanotechnology in food and food related products. The uncertainties related to nanotechnology in food are many and the FDA wants manufacturers to consult them before putting a product on the market. It was a move welcomed by health and environment campaigners: “The agency is no longer ignoring the scientific consensus that these nanomaterials have the capacity to be fundamentally different, and can create new and novel risks, necessitating new testing,” stated George Kimbrell of the Campaign for Food Safety. By identifying nanotechnology as one of their main priorities, the FDA has sent strong signals that this is something they see as highly relevant in the years to come and taken the discussion on the use of nanotechnology in food in the US to another level. We know that nanotechnology is already used in some food related products. Is it time to speed up the discussion in Europe?
Nanotechnology in food and food related products has only recently taken its first few steps into the consumer world. While new products are being released every day, it’s not yet the world of Willy Wonka and a three-course-meal on a stick of chewing gum. The food and beverage category in the Nanotechproject’s Consumer Products Inventory returns over a hundred items. These include antibacterial kitchenware and storage products and utensils, but also edible products and food supplements. There’s Slim Shake Chocolate from Nanoceuticals, for example, described as ‘a technology advanced form of cocoa that offers enhanced flavor without the need for excess sugar’. Or Chinese NanoTea, which: ‘can release effectively all the excellent essences of the annihilation of viruses through penetration so that a good supplement of selenium can be achieved and the selenium supplement function can be increased by 10 times.’
In fact there are many proposed ways that nanotechnology could improve our food. Fighting obesity by reducing the amount of fat and sugar in our food is one. Personalized food that could adapt to the dietary needs of people with allergies or taste preferences is another. The technology can also be used in packaging and wrapping to improve the shelf life of food. These are positive outcomes that one could hardly disagree with. But there are also certain risks related to the use of nanotechnology. When materials and particles are manipulated on a very small scale and take on new properties, it is difficult to know for certain how the body or the environment will react. Because of these uncertainties, the introduction of nanotechnology in consumer products has been cautious, and the precautionary principle has been a guiding principle in implementation of nanotechnology. This states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to humans or the environment, the proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
What is nanotechnology?
As one of the biggest industries in the world, the food sector is technologically advanced. From early 2000 until 2005, nanotechnology became a buzzword; it communicated innovation and forward thinking. But after some time of ‘buzzing’, the media started digging a bit deeper and wrote more and more about the proposed risks that could be related to the technology. This made the public more sceptical, and products with the word nano in their name disappeared from the shelves.
This can be illustrated by the case of Kraft Foods. In 2000, as one of the biggest food companies in the world, Kraft Foods proudly announced their very own project on nanotechnology – the Nanotek Consortium. It involved 15 universities all over the world and several national research laboratories. Presenting themselves as frontrunners in the development of nanotechnology in the food sector, Kraft Foods researched the use of nanotechnology both in packaging and in food itself.
After some years of activity, the consortium was renamed ‘The Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies’, and passed over to Phillip Morris. Mondelēz International (which now owns the brands of Kraft Foods) no longer fronts the development of nanotechnology in the food industry, but has a short text on their website:
“Currently we’re not using nanotechnology. But as a leading food company, we need to understand the potential this technology may hold for us in terms of food safety, product quality, nutrition and sustainability. That is why our research and development teams always keep their eyes on the scientific research, as well as consider potential applications where nanotechnology may be used in packaging material.” (Source: Mondelezinternational.com.)
Nano and TA
The huge promises from the research and food industry combined with the fears communicated by NGOs makes nanotechnology a prime topic for technology assessment, says Adrian Rüegsegger, project manager at TA-SWISS, the Swiss centre for technology assessment. The prominent role of the food industry and food research in Switzerland was one of the reasons they commissioned a study on nanotechnology and food in 2009. “In this specific case more insight was needed, since many studies focused more on nanotechnology at large and less on the particular use in the food sector. By taking an interdisciplinary approach, technology assessment looks at both opportunities and risks, taking into account not only the technological challenges, but also the societal, ethical and regulatory aspects” comments Rüegsegger
Wrapped in nano
The industry is currently keeping quiet, and no longer communicates its actions when it comes to nanotechnology, but it does not mean it is not active in development terms. “We can already find nano products in storeswithin the area of packaging and wrapping”, says Frans Kampers, coordinator of Wageningen Bionanotechnology Centre (BioNT), a research centre active in the fundamental science and technology of micro- and nanosystems and their applications in food and health. “Providing better and safer food for the consumer is the overall goal of these developments”, he continues. “A basic use of nanotechnology in this area could be to change the barriers of packaging; the food will be less affected by, for example, sunlight or the leak of gases through the wrapping.”
One example of this is the American brewery Miller Brewing. Some years ago they wanted to change from glass to plastic bottles. Because of their weight, plastic bottles would be much cheaper to transport. But, it turned out the new plastic bottles were not able to keep the beer fresh as gas leaked through the bottles. Using clay nano particles in the plastic, the barriers of the bottle strengthened and the beer now has a shelf life of up to six months.
Kampers is positive about the general possibilities nanotechnology offers: “Nanotechnology is an enabling technology with many applications. It is a toolbox with a very high precision level and can be applied in many areas, also in the food industry.”
Nanotechnology could also introduce us to the concept of “intelligent packaging”. Small nano sensors could be embedded in the food packaging to inform consumers when food is starting to degrade, for example through a system of colors. The label will be green when you buy the product and turn to yellow when it only has a few days left before going bad. A red label shows that the food is not safe for consumption.
Implementing nanosilver in packaging to keep food free from bacteria is a technology that is already in use today. Kampers refers to research that shows there is little migration between the food and the packaging: “It seems that this application of nanosilver could be a good solution. If the silver particles stay in the packaging and don’t migrate into the food, the person eating the food will not measurably be exposed to the silver.”
And this is what it comes down to: exposure.
Andy Booth, a researcher at Scandinavian research institute SINTEF, is a specialist in engineered nanoparticles. “Wearing a silver ring on your finger is not seen as risky,” says Booth, “however, eating products that have been in contact with nano silver particles is perceived as something else.” Though he agrees there are certain risks connected to the use of nanotechnology, he feels the media has been biased in their writing. “We don’t have a balanced picture of nanotechnology. The focus is more or less always on the negative. Sure, there is a risk, but this is always related to exposure. The technology has so many possibilities that we should not kill it before we have assessed both the risks and the benefits.”
The TA-SWISS study Nanotechnology in the Food Sector (2009) found that food packaging modified by nanotechnology promised real ecological value – provided appropriate recycling systems can be set up. The effects of nanoparticles over the whole life cycle of a product must be taken into account, which means during the manufacturing process, in contact with the food, and in the case of packaging, when it is disposed of or recycled.
One of the most positive prospects for nanotechnology in food is the potential benefits this could mean to our health. Being able to reduce the amount of salt and fat in food without affecting the taste or texture certainly appears enticing and could help in overcoming issues such as obesity. In the UK, Leatherhead Food Research −whose working group NanoWatch has been running since 2007− have shown that the size of salt particles can affect taste. By using salt particles at the nano level, it would be possible to reduce the amount of salt and still get the same taste. Another ‘healthier version’ example would be making a low-fat mayonnaise by manipulating the texture at the nano level, so that the product still tastes and feels as creamy as the full-fat alternative.
An application of nanotechnology that could be useful for special groups of consumers is varying the quantity of nutrients or vitamins in food. Some groups of people have dietary conditions that make it difficult to have a sufficient uptake of vitamins which are caused by allergies, diets or other conditions. Nanotechnology could help these groups to get the nutrition they need. These functional ingredients can also be designed into a delivery system, so that the ingredients reach the place in the body where they will be most effective, without degrading on the way. This kind of delivery system has also been introduced in the field of medicine to get the most effective use of certain drugs.
Frans Kampers believes that nanotechnology could also make our meat consumption more sustainable. “In the future, meat and animal protein will be scarce. It will be impossible to produce enough meat if large populations, who until now have eaten less meat, start adopting the western lifestyle. The current way of producing meat using animals is simply too inefficient. In some cases only ten percent of the plant protein is converted to meat. It would be an interesting opportunity to use nanotechnology to make a meat replacement directly from plant protein. If it tastes and feels sufficiently meat-like, consumers will probably like it. Using a source of plant protein, scientist could manipulate the proteins already in the plant to make the taste and texture like the meat we know today.”
But what will our future meat look like? Professor Mark Post and his team in Maastricht University in the Netherlands revealed they were growing a hamburger in February 2012. Take some bovine stem cells and serum from an equine foetus and grow a few thousand strands of muscle. Hungry yet? Photo: iStockphoto.
Scientists agree that there are a number of opportunities in the field of nanotechnology that could be beneficial for consumers and the society as a whole. Nano products, mostly related to wrapping and packaging, are on the shelves, but many more are on-going projects based in labs around the world. Regulating the use of nanotechnology and dealing with certain risks related to exposure will be of importance in the years to come. It will give the industry important guidelines and will also help educate and inform consumers.
In Europe it is the European Commission that regulates the use of nanotechnology and it is mindful of the importance of a solid framework:
“The EU has invested a great deal of money in research and development for nanotechnologies. It must now create the right conditions for realizing their full potential. The EU has decided to take an “integrated, safe and responsible approach” to the development of nanotechnologies. This includes: reviewing and adapting EU laws; monitoring safety issues; engaging in dialogue with national authorities, stakeholders and citizens.
There are already laws regulating food safety, food packaging and novel food. How nanotechnology fits into these different regulations is more difficult. There isn’t one clear definition of nanotechnology or nanomaterials that everyone agrees on. This creates problems formulating laws and regulations, which again makes it difficult to label and register products. So even though we know there are products out there containing nanotechnology, it could be difficult to identify them by simply looking at the product labels. There’s no requirement for ‘nanotechnology’ to appear on the label. It could be stated but ‘hidden’ in a chemical description which makes it difficult for the average citizen to recognize.
Frans Kampers sees this definition debate as a dead end, especially for food products. “If you look at the current definition proposed by the European Commission and apply that to food, all food products will need to be labelled as nano,” he believes. It would therefore be much simpler to focus on those types of engineered nanomaterials that could be deemed hazardous. These are the persistent non-dissolving, non-biodegradable nanoparticles which can be defined and regulation can be based on such a definition.
Moreover, these materials can be detected, even in complex matrices like food, which is a prerequisite for enforcement of regulation. This is the same line taken in a recent report from STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessments of the EU Parliament). Nano Safety – Risk Governance of Manufactured Nanoparticles (July 2012) argues that regulation should be limited to human activities; a legal definition of nanomaterials should therefore focus on manufactured nanomaterials.
Accepting the tiny technology
As nanotechnology becomes more widely distributed in a variety of consumer products, an increasing number of people are seeking information and expressing concerns about the safety of products containing or using nanotechnologies. In 2011, the Food Standards Agency in the UK researched citizens’ opinions on nanotechnology and food through citizens Forums. Although nanotechnology is a complex area, and citizens find it difficult to assess because of its risks, in certain areas citizens were clear.
First of all, they want information about research and developments, potential risks and uncertainties, and the motivations of those involved in its development, to be made publically available. This request for greater transparency clearly contradicts the more introverted attitude we have seen from the food industry itself.
This matches the findings of STOA and TA-SWISS and the debate concerning genetically modified crops; citizens are more cautious about products if they suspect that the manufacturers are not transparent about the constituents of their products. A proactive information policy and specific labeling could help prevent mistrust, says Adrian Rüegsegger of TA-SWISS. The fear of citizens that the ratio of potential benefits to potential risks is unfavorable was one of the reasons TA-SWISS wanted to do a study specifically on the food sector.
Frans Kampers concurs: “People associate food with emotion and don’t want it to appear as something artificial. Knowing that something ‘secret’ is going on will create a negative attitude towards nanotechnology.” People need to be educated on both the benefits and the risks, he says.
Another conclusion from the Food Standards Agency’s citizens forums was that they want governments to act on behalf of the public interest. Seeing the food industry as self-interested, they wanted governments to take a stronger position. However, they also wanted more citizen involvement when making decisions about whether certain products were ‘worth the risk’ when it came to consumption.
During the workshops, participants developed their views as their knowledge about the issues grew. This shows the importance of educating consumers and having a transparent dialogue between the food industry, manufacturers and the government. When consumers know what’s going on and the motives behind scientific developments, they are more likely to accept new products.
This method of involving citizens is well known from the area of technology assessment and was also included in the study made by TA-SWISS. Their ‘Publifocus’ on nanotechnology, health and environment in 2006 aimed at finding out how lay people perceived the debate on nanotechnology and where citizens saw opportunities for themselves, their health and the environment. One of their findings was that, in general, people expect more opportunities than risks with nanotechnology – their hope outweighs their reservations, says TA-SWISS project manager Emiliano Feresin. But even when participants had a positive attitude they wanted more information and labelling of food containing synthetic nanoparticles.
Andy Booth knows that it is difficult for the average citizen to understand the complexities of nanotechnology, and consider (or make their mind up) about the risks and the benefits. “Nanotechnology is a huge field and it is difficult to discuss it as a whole” he confirms. “To say that nanotechnology is dangerous is the same as saying that all chemicals are toxic. Some products with nanotechnology are perfectly fine, but when we actually consume the product the exposure is completely different.”
Product safety is paramount
The STOA study concludes that information about the ingredients, functions and effects of nanomaterials in consumer products is required by citizens and consumer organizations. Product safety is paramount and the industry is expected to provide this information in a clear and understandable way, in order to enable the public to make an informed decision.
It may be needed sooner rather than later. An expert group from FAO and WHO identified 183 published patents containing the keywords ‘nano’ and ‘food’ in the period 2009–2011 indicating that there is a lot of research activity and probably several ‘near-ready’ products.
Nanotechnology can be revolutionary in many areas of consumption, but is of no use if it is not accepted by the public. If, in the future, we want the meat in our fridge to communicate with us, we will have to rely on the soundness of the science, industry and the governments that regulate the developments.
SINTEF is the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia. SINTEF creates value through knowledge generation, research and innovation, and develops technological solutions that are brought into practical use.
Institute of Nanotechnology. The Institute works closely with governments, universities, researchers, companies and the general public to educate and inform on all aspects of nanotechnology. It also organises various international scientific events, conferences and educational courses that examine the implications of nanotechnology across a wide variety of themes and sectors.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies was established in April 2005 as a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is dedicated to helping ensure that as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized, public and consumer engagement remains strong, and the potential benefits of these new technologies are realized.
nano&me is a website for anyone interested in nanotechnologies. The site aims to bring a balanced and thoughtful perspective to discussion about nano. Through these discussions a wide range of views can then be brought to the attention of government policy makers and any business and science using nanotechnologies. The website is made by The Responsible Nano Forum and the Together Agency of Nottingham.
Wageningen Bionanotechnology Centre (BioNT) is active in the fundamental science and technology of micro- and nanosystems and their applications in food and health. The centre wants to help companies utilize the opportunities of these new technologies to innovate their products and processes and to improve our food and prevent health problems.
Governance of Nanotechnology in the Netherlands – Informing and engaging in different social spheres. Rathenau Instituut (2012)
Describes the wide range of activities that were organised in the Netherlands to bring a public perspective into the development of nanotechnology. Will be published in a special issue on public engagement in the International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society (iJETS) later this year. Ten lessons for a nanodialogue. Rathenau Instituut (2008).
Nanomaterials : Effects on Environment and Health. TA-SWISS (2009)
An overview of commercial products which contain nanomaterials and an analysis of future trends.
Nanotechnology in the food sector. European Parliament (2009)
Comissioned by TA-SWISS and conducted by the Institute of Applied Ecology (Freiburg, Germany), a STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessments of the EU parliament) study which assesses products in respect of environmental issues and sustainability, showing the direction that future developments might take and where there is a need for caution.
Nanotechnology in the EU
Policy, research and actions on nanotechnology from the EU