by Marion Nestle
Jan 4 2010

Thinking about nanotechnology

I am trying to understand what to think about food nanotechnology and whether it is good, bad, or indifferent.  Nanotechnology refers to the use of very small particles for doing any number of things to food.  I’ve been collecting items about it:

But what about their safety?  Could nanoparticles cross cell-membranes and end up being harmful?  The technology to produce the particles does not cost much.  This means anyone can make and use them, including food manufacturers who don’t want to bother with safety testing.  So: is nanotechnology the new asbestos?

If you know something about this, please weigh in.  Thanks and happy new year!

Update, January 8: A the U.K. House of Lords Science and Technology committee warns that the lack of transparency in research on nanotechnology is likely to induce a consumer backlash similar to that on genetically modified foods.  Indeed.

  • It will add to the far too long list of food issues in America: what is the balance between looking at our historical facts of food (lack of American health given emerged “food technology” in the past half-century); and preserving the entrepreneurial, capitalistic, and free market system. Both of such incredible importance, that it will take a serious breakthrough beyond nanotech to solve.

    Further “food technology”– even with some positive effects — will only further blur the consumers’ understanding of what it is they are eating. Which is such a seemingly elementary subject that most Americans still think they are eating “real food”. It is sad.

    Thank you Marion, for your blog. I dream that people find it accidental and are introduced to the world of “behind the scenes food” through your welcoming writing style.

    Aspiring industry leader,

  • Anthro

    I just cannot get my head ’round what the heck nanotech really IS. Tiny particles–of what?

    Will food companies use it to “fortify” junk food?

    How do we know if we are eating “it”? I don’t eat packaged food, but is NT used for fresh food?

    Sorry, I have only questions, no answers.

  • A recent press release from Food and Water Watch Europe suggests the hidden toxicity of nanotechnology:

  • I don’t like people playing around with my food. Eating a wholesome natural diet is healthy, good for us, good for our kids and delicious!
    When are we going to learn? Remember what a lifesaver hydrogenated fats were? Instead we saw obesity become a serious crisis and heart disease be a leading killer. Thanks Trans Fat!
    Unfortunately money can’t be made as quickly and product success can not be measured when just selling regular fruit and vegetables. So I am concerned that this will slip into our food before any discerning thought or discussion regarding the health of our food.
    I am scared of this new technology and also have only questions.
    I love this blog and your work Marion, please keep questioning and talking.

  • edsel

    Not all nano is bad, but I’ve decided to eliminate the obvious TiO2 from my home when hearing of it last month, especially anything ingested or inhaled. Found it in my multivitamin, toothpaste, and cosmetics.

    How much of it ends up in our water? What are the long term environmental impacts? At the moment we’re all lab rats when it comes to this nano stuff. Carbon nanotubes and maybe NiO are other substances to watch. I hope you follow this story closely Marion.

  • B.

    Check the Environmental Working Group website. The danger seems to come from the reluctance of the food manufacturers to release their safety data. (Never a good sign)

  • Emily

    I am extremely wary of eating anything that didn’t exist 150 years ago. To me, the best guarantee of a food’s safety and wholesomeness is that people have been eating it for generations.

  • Maya

    Since nanoparticles have completely different properties than the normal compounds, migration across cell membranes is not the only problem. The nanoparticles may have unforseen effects that were not tested, or they may target a different part of the body than the normal compound. So similarly with many of the synthetic compounds that do not have fate and transport tests to tell us where in the environment and in our bodies the compound will go, nanoparticles need their own fate and transport tests.

    Personally, I am extremely skeptical of the use of nanoparticles in consumer products and avoid them when possible.

  • I can’t help but wonder if Michael Crichton was on to something in “Prey”, a frightening sci-fi version of nanotechnology.

  • Why would we even assume that it would be safe to nanoize our food? Thanks for your work – your books, this blog – we need you!

  • Janet

    It’s good to ask questions, but don’t let the hype influence people too much. Sometimes “nano” particles is just another way of saying “dust”. There has been “nano” sized “dust” in food for generations. Some lab created ideas may not be great, but some people are automatically scared when they read some of the jargon words, when that shouldn’t be the case. I thought you presented some informative links

  • Barbara

    Coming from a strong Northern Italian heritage using the term nanotechnology with food is so wrong and totally American food industrial complex. We have lost so much by not placing value on long standing food cultures.

  • Nanoparticles are strongly linked to lung damage ( Nanoparticles are very common in our environment already.

    Why are we considering another additive when we have large-scale food recalls due to pathogenic tainting; unlabeled and untested genetically modified organisms in our food; MSG hiding under multiple aliases and “grandfathered” chemicals like BPA in our food. Now that GMOs have set precedent, it is most likely nanotech will move into the food supply unregulated and unlabeled.

    Before we invite another unknown to the party, let’s clean up what we already have to deal with.

  • Marion

    Dear Marion Nestle,

    I follow your interesting blog since some month ago,
    and noticed the other day your question concerning more information on safety aspects of nanotecnology.

    I tried to fill in the form on your blog with a comment, but it was impossible.
    I only managed with the name, but not furhter on. Therefore I use your e-mail address above

    I want to give you some feed back.
    Have you seen the paper from BEUC, down-loaded from their web?

    They discuss the safety aspects from an European perspective, and also other aspects.
    In the report there is aslo a list of some products on the market, also from US.

    Nanotechnology is not my topic, it is labelling and health claims
    as well as following the new European law for novel foods,
    where nanotechnolgy now is an issue.
    I work at the Swedish National Food Administration and is
    partipating the Commission expert group on the application
    of the health claim law from 2007. We have had 30 meetings in Brussels
    (27 Member States) concerning the application of this complicated Regulation.

    EFSA is really setting hard pressure on the industry,
    i.e. on their documentation for health claims.
    Most opinions are so far negative for applications
    sent in by the industry (

    We have met each other some 3 years ago
    when you visited Louise Ungerth, and had a very good lecture for the Consumer organisation!

    I send you a picture from the dinner afterwards in her home and also a picture of myself.

    Sincerely yours,
    Anita Laser Reutersward
    PhD in Food Chemistry and Nutrition.
    Uppsala, Sweden +46 733 54 53 37

  • edsel

    Went to the big box store today and was surprised to find how many nutritional supplements contain titanium dioxide (TiO2). If you take a multi and calcium supplement, most likely you’re ingesting TiO2. Is it so important for our supplements to look pretty prior to ingestion? Good heavens, my calcium’s off-white. Must be old. 😉