by Marion Nestle
Jun 16 2009

Nanotechnology: threat or promise?

A recent meeting of the Institute for Food Technologists included presentations on applications of nanotechnology to food. These, say food technologists, have the potential to improve the safety, quality, and shelf life of foods.  They cite as examples anti-microbial coatings on food packaging materials and improved delivery systems for vitamin and flavor ingredients.

Nanotechnology deals with substances at the atomic and molecular levels, which means really, really small.  One nanometer is 0.000,000,001 meters (10 to the minus 9, or one millionth of a millimeter).

Until now, I haven’t said anything about food nanotechnology because I really don’t know what to say about it.  Is it safe?  How would we know?  Friends of the Earth says nanotechnology is the antithesis of organic agriculture and  represents a new threat to our food supply.  Even Food Technology thinks it should be disclosed on package labels.

The FDA says it already has the authority to regulate food nanotechnology.  The industry says that overly strict regulations are impeding progress in this industry (sounds like the GMO arguments, no?).

What’s going on here?  I’m having trouble getting a handle on this one.

If you know something about this, comments are most welcome.

  • As for food nanotech issues, I compiled some information resources in Spanish and English:

    Check out also the critical research work of the ETC Group

  • Janet Camp

    Who needs longer shelf life, more or better additives? How would this technology improve safety? Eat fresh food, cook it yourself, read labels and forget the additives. I just don’t see any need for this.

    Even for those who eat boxes everything, how long does something have to last on the shelf? Who benefits from lengthening that time?

  • Mary

    Like all technology it probably has some real benefits and some real flaws.

    Why are these discussions all so polar? Threat or Promise? Evil vs Good?

    What exactly is ever that easy?

  • Maya

    The Woodrow Wilson Center and the Pew Trusts have a website devoted to nanotechnology at:

    Some of their reports that deal specifically with the FDA regualtion of nanotechnology are:

    Dietary Supplements:

    Food Packaging:

    General FDA Oversight:

  • Kyle

    I just get a little worried when the discussions start going towards “functional foods” (everyday foods with supplements or medicines added to them via nanotechnology). Is this really necessary? Is it a long ways down the road? I can’t even begin to understand any of it, but it’s definitely caught my interest.

  • This is my #2 complaint against GMOs. What is happening with genetically modified foods is that they are coming in under legal radar, setting precedent. What is being allowed in nanotechnology is not being discussed because we’ve already opened the door for GMOs.

  • There are such an incredibly wide range of nanoparticles (potentially several for nearly every substance known!) that determining exactly what problems might occur with which specific materials will be an incredibly difficult and time-consuming problem.

    Think about asbestos. When silicate minerals occur in large, non-friable particles – they’ don’t present a risk for increased rates of lung cancer. But when they occur in tiny, needle-like particles – like asbestos minerals do – they pose a significant threat. Another example is pure carbon, which when in the form of soot or diamonds is quite innocuous – but which becomes a a carcinogen when present as needle-shaped nanotubes.

    Very tiny particles (in the 3 micron and less size range) can pose significantly greater risks to health as they have a strong tendency to stick in the lungs and mucous membranes when inhaled. They also have enhanced abilities to penetrate tissue – even skin. Nanoparticles are also more prone to release from surfaces they occur on than coatings made of common materials are.

    This is an area, IMO, where a *lot* more research needs to be done. OSHA has done some very preliminary work on nanotechnology, from their website comes this important caveat: “Engineered nanomaterials may have unique chemical and physical properties that differ substantially from those of the same material in bulk or macro-scale form.”

  • Marion

    My colleague Ned Seaman, a nonotechnology chemistry professor at NYU, writes:

    Insofar as I can tell, nanotech is divided into two categories, inorganic and bio-based/inspired. As an example of the latter, in my lab, we build objects, lattices and machines from DNA. Others do related things with proteins or combinations.

    The inorganic end of the game entails working with carbon nanotubes (basically little pieces of graphite rolled up into needles), other inorganic nanotubes or metallic nanoparticles (gold, cadmium selenide, etc.) These are likely components in nanoelectronics and nanophotonics.

    The two parts of nanotech that I’ve described are not entirely separate: for example, we sometimes try to organize the latter nanospecies with DNA.

    I have no clue how any of this is relevant to food, except conceivably in its extraction (don’t see that either, but it’s a thought). The bio-nano species are of exactly the same value/danger as the molecules in the cells we eat anyhow. I don’t see any danger there. Only a Lucretia Borgia wannabe would put any of the inorganic species into food.

    At least in our lab, I should point out that the quantities we use today are small on the food scale. A typical experiment uses at most a few picomoles of material — nanograms to micrograms on a good day.

    [I asked him for a bit more explanation of his Lucretia Borgia comment and noted that selenium is an essential element in human nutrition. His response: “These are small, but not all that small. They can clog up the works if they aggregate. Selenium is an essential element, but only in the proper chemical form.” Oh.]

  • It’s understandable that we would have a cautious mind when we approach the nano-tech debate… especially as it relates to our food. But we should also consider how much nano-tech already enriches our lives.
    Consider, for a moment, that our entire existence is made possible by nano-tech within our bodies. Every single protein that we are made of is built by nano-machines in our cells. Thusly, our food is built the same way.
    To the extent that we approach with caution, we should also be considerate of the wonders of nano-tech.