As recently as 2005, food manufacturing giants like Kraft Foods and Nestlé were touting the food science breakthroughs they expected to make using nanotechnology. At the time, anticipated innovations included tiny chemical tongues and noses to sense spoilage, smart foods that could change composition to suit the consumer, and delicious junk foods with the nutritional profile of broccoli. Kraft even organized a consortium of government and academic institutions, called the Nanotek Consortium, to study nanotechnology applications in food.
But the Nanotek Consortium has disappeared, and references to nanotechnology have fallen out of the public communications of big food companies. “We have not nor are we currently using nanotechnology in our products or packaging. Regarding the Nanotek Consortium, we are no longer affiliated with the group,” Kraft spokesman Richard D. Buino wrote in an e-mail to Food Quality.
At the same time, nanotechnology-based innovations have been appearing on supermarket shelves. Many observers attribute the pullback to increased public resistance and concern about untested technologies. However, a lack of regulations specific to nanoparticles means that food companies have a blank check to include them in products without disclosing that information in any way. It seems that although the food industry’s interest in nanotechnology was blossoming just a few short years ago, it has now withered, or at least gone underground.
Many nanotechnology innovations pioneered in other disciplines, such as drug delivery, have potential applications in foods. For example, single molecule detection technology for tracking enzymatic reactions could potentially be used to detect chemical contaminants or pathogens in food. Nanosized capsules developed for delivering targeted drug or biological therapy could be used to encapsulate time-released flavor enhancers or specialized sensors for food quality measurements. Nanotubes and particles could potentially be used to create desired textures, and nanofilms could be included as barriers to spoilage or oxidation.
“One of the areas where nanomaterials and nanotechnology have potential is for very rapid and sensitive detection of foodborne pathogens. There is a potential for benefit to the consumer,” said Bernadene Magnuson, PhD, a senior scientific and regulatory consultant with Cantox Health Sciences International, a scientific, toxicology, and regulatory consulting firm that offers its clients expertise in food and nutrition.
Foodborne pathogens have been an increasing problem in the food industry and in our food supply. In March 2010, the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University estimated that the annual cost of foodborne illness in the U.S. is $152 billion. That’s obviously a massive problem for which solutions are desperately needed—and a compelling entry in the “benefit” column in any risk-benefit assessment for a nanotech-based pathogen monitoring system.
In addition to technology borrowed from pharmaceutical and materials science, the food industry is producing its own innovation. “Nestlé and Unilever are developing nanoparticle emulsion methods to help with food textures to make them more uniform. Nestlé is also exploring the delivery of nutrients and antioxidants in nanocapsules,” said Chananit Sintuu, an analyst with Lux Research, a research and advisory firm covering many industrial areas, including nanomaterials. Sintuu cited a 2008 publication in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in which Nestlé researchers described the use of “self-assembly structures” to improve the texture of an emulsion. “Therefore,” the authors wrote, “the objective of the present study was to investigate controlled release of aroma compounds from the dispersed phase of self-assembly structures in an emulsified water solution, closer to popular food products in terms of lipid content.”1