Think you know just what you’re eating when you get prepackaged and prepared foods? What you don’t know may hurt you as more and more companies begin researching and using nanotechnology in their food products. While some applaud the efforts as ways to help reduce obesity and improve nutrition, others urge caution as nanoparticles may have some unknown and potentially deadly effects on the human body. While it’s ultimately up to you whether or not you decide to eat nanofoods, here are some facts that will educate you on nanofood technology and may have you moving a little slower towards the latest food tech.
1.There are more than 180 applications for nanofoods in the developing stages, with over 200 different companies researching them. A few of them may already be on your grocery store shelves. Nanofoods are hot research topics for those in the food industry, as they can be more tasty, last longer and even provide greater nutrition. However, the long term effects of the consumption of these products aren’t really known, at least not well enough to release them into the wider marketplace. Nonetheless, you might see at least three nanofood products at your grocery store: a brand of canola cooking oil called Canola Active Oil, a tea called Nanotea and a chocolate diet shake called Nanoceuticals Slim Shake Chocolate.
2.Some nanotech products use particles that don’t break down in the body, like nanosilver and silica. While foods have been modified for years, many food researchers are urging the FDA to look into nanotechnology applications a little more carefully. Because these particles don’t break down in the body, they could potentially build up in the system and cause health problems. Even if the particles were to pass out of the system, they could wreak havoc on water-based ecosystems. Preliminary studies by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology found that nano-silicates like those used in toothpaste and ointments stayed in the water unless treated with a substance that caused them to clump together and form a sort of sludge.
3.There are no warning labels on foods that contain nanofoods because health officials believe there is no reason for caution of concern. Consumer advocates aren’t quite as certain, stating that a lack of research on the health consequences and long term effects of nanoparticles in foods means that there should be labeling on products so consumers can make smart decisions. While cloned or genetically engineered products have caused an uproar with consumers around the world, a lack of awareness and education on the potential hazards has limited the response to widespread nanofood production.
4.Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown that nanoparticles pose potential risks to human health. Worry about nanofoods isn’t just hot air. Studies have shown that when nanoparticles are ingested they can cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer and heart and brain disease. While the promise of nanofoods can’t be denied, the risks to human health can’t simply be swept under the rug either. Worse yet, nanoparticles don’t have to be ingested to be dangerous. Studies have also shown that nanoparticles can travel into the body through absorption, meaning consumers might only have to touch nanoparticle-based products to be exposed. Additionally, a 2005 study in Environmental Science & Technology showed that zinc oxide nanoparticles were toxic to human lung cells in lab tests even at low concentrations while another study demonstrated that nanosilver killed liver and brain cells from rats. Isn’t that something you’d like to know was in your food?
5.The amount of nanomaterial in foods may be small, but it can accumulate with repeated consumption. Dr. Vicki Colvin has said, "One thing we’ve concluded is whatever these things [nanomaterials] are going to do, they’re not inert. What will they do when they get in the environment, and what will they do when they get into people?" The reality is that we still don’t know. Some studies have shown that nanoparticles have been able to reduce tumors in mice when used in a targeted fashion. As to their effects when they’re simply allowed to build up in the body, well, nobody is quite sure, and that’s what makes the nanofoods so potentially dangerous for consumers.
6.Researchers say it’s impossible to know the true number of foods and products containing nanoparticles because statistics are based on self-reporting by companies.That means consumers could be buying and eating many more nanofoods on a daily basis without ever knowing. Since current packaging doesn’t require listing whether or not a food contains nanoparticles consumers can’t make the decision whether or not to eat nanofoods or to avoid them. And nanofoods aren’t going away anytime soon. It’s estimated that by 2015 over 40% of food products will be nanotechnology-based. A scary stat since the true effects of these particles aren’t yet known.
7.Even non-nanofoods may contain nanoparticles as those used in food packaging might leach into food or beverages. Apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers and other fruit and vegetables are being coated with a thin, wax-like nanocoating to extend shelf-life by enhancing color and flavor in the products. Consumers think they’re getting healthy, natural foods but may inadvertently be consuming nanoparticles. As the nanopackaging industry grows, consumers can expect to see more and more products with the technology on store shelves, while the effects of it’s use on human health remain unknown.
8.Nanoparticles have many properties that can make them potentially dangerous and hard to control. Nanoparticles, like those used in foods, have an incredibly high surface area to mass ratio giving them some unexpected and strange properties that might not be beneficial to humans consuming them. Among these are: they can be absorbed directly in the bloodstream, they can enter cell mitochondria and cross cell membranes, they can cross the blood-brain barrier, they have a high temperature tolerance and are incredibly strong and last but not least require only minute amounts to cause an effect.
9.Officially, the FDA says there aren’t any nano-containing food products currently sold in the U.S. There wouldn’t be much of an uproar about nanofoods if this were actually true. Officially, the FDA also says that there is no risk from nano-enhanced foods, despite the fact that many in its own ranks have pointed to studies that plainly show otherwise. It doesn’t help consumers feel safe or confident about what they eat when they can’t and are being prevented from knowing what’s actually in their foods.
10.Nearly 20 of the world’s largest food manufacturers have in-house nanofood labs. This includes well-known names like Nestle, Hershey, Cargill, Campbell’s Soup, Sara Lee, and Heinz. Of course, you won’t hear them trumpeting those efforts to consumers. New York Times author Andrew Schneider points out that manufacturer Kraft once was gung-ho about their nanotech innovations and proudly touted in press releases. Yet, today, the company denies any nanotech research occurs in their labs, stating they have no products or packaging that use nanotech. Of course, consumers have no way of being sure that this is actually true.