by Marion Nestle
Feb 7 2013

Yet another food worry? Nanoparticles.

As You Sow, an advocacy group for environmental corporate accountability, has been paying close attention to nanotechnology.  It has just issued a report, Slipping Through the Cracks: An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods.

An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods


According to an account in the New York Times, the CEO of As You Sow, Andy Behar, says:

We’re not taking a no nano position…We’re saying just show it’s safe before you put these things into food or food packaging.
Nanotechnology, as I have discussed previously, is the use of tiny particles for many purposes, among them food.  These particles are really, really small, on the scale of nanometers (nm), one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter.
Are they safe to eat?

The FDA’s nanotechnology web page provides a 2007 report from a task force, a 2012 fact sheet, and a draft-for-comment on how industry should deal with nanoparticles in foods and food packaging.

The fact sheet says:

FDA has long encountered the combination of promise, risk, and uncertainty that accompanies emerging technologies…The very changes in biological, chemical and other properties that can make nanotechnology applications so exciting also may merit examination to determine any effects on product safety, effectiveness, or other attributes. Understanding nanotechnol­ogy remains a top FDA priority. FDA is monitoring the evolving science and has a robust research agenda to help assess the safety and effectiveness of products using nanotechnology.

My translation: the FDA has no idea whether this technology is safe or not and is depending on industry to find out.

Because the FDA does not require labeling of nanomaterials (the European Union does), you have to decide for yourself whether this is something you want to add to your list of food worries.

Just a thought: real foods don’t have added nanoparticles.

  • brainmatters

    Since I have absolutely no ability to make an informed decision on such a specialized area of science, I am glad I only eat real food.

    Perhaps the NYTimes piece answers this, but what kinds of products make use of nano-technology?

  • brainmatters

    Okay, I read the article. Powdered-sugar donuts? Who needs those to begin with? Whew, I was worried for a minute. As to “making things creamier without the fat”, I think I’ll stick to an occasional (once a month or so) treat to the real thing, in modest portions.

    It’s not that I think these particles are dangerous (we don’t seem to know yet), it’s that I don’t see the need for substituting fake “appeal” so that people can continue to consume too much food.

    But, I’m not a marketer or snack manufacturer trying to persuade children and others to overeat in order to enrich my company’s shareholders.

  • Cathy RD

    But real foods might! Just like “real” chicken can have a saline injection/soak without labelling as such, and beef can be tenderized (with numerous small needles increasing surface area available for contamination) without labelling, maybe real foods can eventually be injected with nanoparticles.

    We have a very sick food system. Food is seen as a commodity, not as an essential need.
    Water systems are closely controlled for the end user. But with food, the producer, convenience, and profit are the bottom line, rather than the health of the population.

  • Artulia

    I really sat up when I read what you said “Because the FDA does not require labeling of nanomaterials (the European Union does), you have to decide for yourself whether this is something you want to add to your list of food worries.”

    Well, I don’t really feel comfortable making the decision my own. I wish the government would take a stand one way or the other. Making choices for myself scares me.

  • I really enjoyed this post and am very concerned with the government making the right choices with the labels.
    An example I learned in the wellness course that I am certified with, is that there are 500mg. of trans fat allowed on a label to still be considered 0 trans fat.
    It is not until after 500mg. that they label any trans fat. This is so awful.

  • Sam

    Real food do have nanoparticles….they are called proteins….nanoparticles just sounds more high-tech and thus gets food functionality project funded by the gov

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  • I’m so glad you are picking up the cudgels on nanotech. I’ve done two interviews in the last year on nanotechnology in food, with As You Sow and NRDC and most recently with Heather Millar a science writer, who describes various experiments going on now at Duke and other universities to try to understand how nanotech will respond to different environments and scenarios. (This article can be read in ORION Magazine). Up till now, nanotech has been given the designation of GRAS, but until these recent experiments got underway FDA had no basis for making any judgement about the safety of nanotech. Where it is used most extensively in food is titanium dioxide in numerous products including popular candies and gum, and in packaging where nano-silver is employed as an antimicrobial. It is alarming to say the least that nano-particles, capable of passing through the blood-brain barrier are already in wide use in food, with very little knowledge or understanding of their potential impacts on human health and the environment.

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  • Someone needs to figure out if these nanoparticles are safe to eat. It makes me uncomfortable not knowing.

  • Hank

    There is a vast difference between natural nanoparticles such as proteins and lab manufactured items such as gold particles, fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and the like. Those implying an equivalency are wrong at best. The science of manufactured nanoparticles is in its early stages and very little is known about how these devices interact with physiology. Anyone dismissive of the suspicion of these devices possibly have financial stakes surrounding the production and sales of these devices. This stance is very familiar ; sell before full characterization. History is rife with examples, thalidamide, DDT, CFC, ad nauseum. Feel me doc?