Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Nanotechnology for Food Applications: More Questions Than Answers

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Nanotechnology for Food Applications: More Questions Than Answers

Article excerpt

This article highlights the scientific evidence to date on a variety of nanotechnology issues important to consumers with a focus on food applications. Nanotechnology is technology at the atomic or macromolecular levels on the scale of approximately 1-100 nm. There are unlimited potential applications of nanotechnology for food, dietary supplements and food contact materials. However, there are more questions than answers about the safety risks of nanotechnology, its environmental, health and other impacts, and its costs and benefits. Benefits and costs will likely be specific to the nanomaterials used, the application and other conditions (e.g., temperature).

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Nanotechnology is the purposeful manipulation or engineering of atoms and molecules at the nanoscale so that familiar materials have new and often unique properties and behavioral traits that can be used in new applications. Nanomaterials are designed to have at least one dimension (length, width, height) at the nanoscale of 1-100 nm. The nanoscale dimension is a size so small that it is 1/100,000 of a typical sheet of paper or 1/80,000 of a human hair. Nanomaterials that have a nanoscale length, width and height are known as nanoparticles. Nanotechnology, with its almost limitless range of novel food and other applications, has been promoted by some as the driving spark for the next industrial revolution (Priestly, Harford, and Sim 2007). For example, scientists can manipulate silver on the nanoscale and create nanosilver, which has potent antimicrobial properties beneficial for many applications, including refrigerators embedded with nanosilver.

Although many nano-sized particles occur in nature, such as lactose and whey proteins found in human milk, the focus here is on those purposely manipulated or engineered for new applications. This article focuses on nanotechnology for food applications, such as for foods (with new nano-ingredients and additives), nutritional supplements and food contact materials. Here, food contact materials include materials used to produce, package, store, handle or serve food that comes or may come into contact with food. As the first examination of nanotechnology in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, this article contributes to a broader understanding of issues associated with nanotechnology by openly discussing these issues using balanced information and scientific findings in non-technical language. Because the science and marketing of nanotechnologies are evolving at a rapid pace, the aim here is to present the current evidence to date in a way that addresses a series of questions that will be important to consumers, industry, policymakers and others in the United States as nanotechnologies for food applications become increasingly developed and commercialized. These questions were chosen to highlight the key issues that are likely to be of particular interest to consumers. These issues range from safety of the technology, to consumer acceptance of the technology, to legal and regulatory oversight for food-related applications of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is a new and rapidly emerging field, with most of the expansion occurring in the past decade. In 1997, worldwide nanotechnology research and development was estimated at $432 million, but by 2005, this amount rose ninefold to around $4.1 billion (Roco 2005a). The Institute of Food Science and Technology (2006) estimates that more than 200 companies are involved in nanotechnology worldwide and identifies the United States, Japan and China as the world leaders for food applications. The European Union is another world leader for food and agriculture applications. According to Chaudhry et al. (2008), a market-analysis report by Cientifica estimates that there were as many as 400 companies used nanotechnology for food applications in 2006. In 1996, the Nanotechnology Working Group estimated that the international market for products incorporating nanotechnology would reach $1 trillion by 2015 (Roco 2005b). …

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