Magazine article Science News

Hungry for Nano: The Fruits of Nanotechnology Could Transform the Food Industry

Magazine article Science News

Hungry for Nano: The Fruits of Nanotechnology Could Transform the Food Industry

Article excerpt

When it comes to nanotechnology, almost every industry wants a piece of the action. For more than a decade, the electronics industry has been exploiting the tools of nanotechnology for the development of high-performance computer chips. More recently, biotech companies have begun harnessing the same tools for diagnosing and treating disease. Now, the food industry is turning to nanotechnology as it searches for innovations that could bring safer, healthier, and tastier products to the public.

On the food industry's wish list are low-cost sensors that quickly signal the presence of foodborne pathogens, filters that remove undesired compounds from food and beverages, and nanopartides that store flavors and nutrients inside food and release them at designated times and places in the body.

"Food is the ultimate complex mixture," says materials scientist David Weitz of Harvard University. "The texture of the food, the taste of the food, the functionality of the food are determined to a large degree by how you mix the different components together."

Understanding how all the individual ingredients in foods interact at the molecular scale--the nanometer scale, that is--should help researchers control these interactions more precisely, Weitz says.

In 2000, Kraft Foods, headquartered in Northfield, Ill., began sponsoring one of the most concerted efforts to apply nanotechnology to food R&D. Known as the NanoteK Consortium, its members include researchers from 15 universities, 3 national labs, and 3 start-up companies. By funding research in nanotechnology, the multibillion-dollar food giant expects to churn out a new generation of "smarter" and more personalized food products, says Manuel Marquez, director of the consortium.

Kraft is not alone. Although officials at Nestle's research center in Lausanne, Switzerland, are fight-lipped about their plans, the company now has a dedicated staff of food scientists investigating the potential benefits of nanotechnology. Meanwhile, many university labs have begun adapting their nanoscale innovations in chemistry, materials science, and biotechnology to meet the needs of the food business.

Marquez says that nanotechnology will enable companies to bring food research and development to the next level. "If we don't understand the interactions at the molecular level, we will not be able to develop new products or materials with new properties," he explains.

PLASTIC SENSE As they reach for that new level, some researchers are turning to lessons learned in the electronics industry. Seeking to replace silicon with less-expensive and flexible materials for applications including solar cells and computer displays (SN: 1/31/04, p. 67; SN: 8/11/01, p. 86), many electronics firms have been investigating electrically conductive polymers. These same materials could be molded into sensors with nanoscale features that would, within minutes of exposure, detect extremely faint molecular signals of spoilage or foodborne pathogens.

Because the sensors are made from cheap, flexible materials, they could be incorporated directly into packaging for continuous monitoring of food quality, says consortium member Gregory Sotzing at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Sotzing and his colleagues are working on a food-spoilage sensor that changes color when it detects a problem. Such a sensor could render obsolete those vague, and frequently inaccurate, "best before" dates printed on many food packages, says Sotzing.

To make the sensors, the researchers coat a piece of glass with a layer of nonconducting, precursor polymer and then pass the fine tip of an atomic force microscope (AFM) over the material's surface. Wherever the electrode-like tip comes into contact with the polymer, it changes the molecular structure of the material, rendering it conducting. With this technique, the researchers can rapidly draw extremely thin electrical lines in the material. …

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