by Gregor Wolbring

July 31, 2006

Nanoforum, a group from Europe, says in its recent report on Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food that food is nanofood when "nanotechnology techniques or tools are used during cultivation, production, processing, or packaging of the food. It does not mean atomically modified food or food produced by nanomachines". Although the definition seems to be artificially narrow with this exclusion, it still gives a good idea of how much food will be nanofood in the future.

The second Nano4Food Conference is around the corner. According to the conference webpage, nanotechnology will be able to solve a variety of problems in the food industry by enabling increases in productivity and cost-effectiveness; providing better food processing, packaging and logistics; helping in the design of new healthier and tastier products; and providing better food safety and quality assurance.

Envisioned applications are nanoscale biosensors for pathogen detection and diagnosis; nano-delivery of bioactive/nutrient ingredients in foodstuffs through improved knowledge of food materials at the nanoscale; and nanoscale filtration systems for improved texture modification.

According to the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy "more than 180 applications are in different developing stages and a few of them are on the market already. The nanofood market is expected to surge from 2.6 bn. US dollars today to 7.0 bn. US dollars in 2006 and to 20.4 bn. US dollars in 2010. More than 200 companies around the world are today active in research and development. USA is the leader followed by Japan and China. By 2010 Asian with more than 50 percent of the world population will be the biggest market for nanofood with the leading of China".

Nanotechnology is envisioned to be usedin food production, processing, preservation, flavor and color improvement, hygiene, safety and packaging. Nanomaterials include nanocomposites, nanoclays, nanotubes and others. Nanosensors, nanoimaging and nanochips will be used, as will nanofilters. Nano delivery systems will use nanocapsules, nanocochleates, nanoballs, nanodevices, nanomachines and nanorobots.

Two annexes to the report Down on the Farm by the ETC Group give further ideas of where nanofood is heading: Annex 1: Nanotech R&D at Major Food and Beverage Corporations; and Annex 2: Nano Patents for Food and Food Packaging.

Nano-Nutraceuticals and Nano-Functional Food

Agri-Food Canada defines nutraceuticals and functional foods as "food components that provide demonstrated physiological benefits or reduce the risk of chronic disease, above and beyond their basic nutritional functions. A functional food is similar to a conventional food, while a nutraceutical is isolated from a food and sold in dosage form, in both cases the active components occur naturally in the food".

Biofortified". foods (fortified with vitamins, minerals, etc.) are another development (see the golden rice debate).

Bio-engineering and genetics have so far been envisioned as tools to produce more nutritious and functional food. But nanotechnology is moving fast into this area. The Nanoforum report on Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food gives many examples.

Nanocapsules -- "Nanocapsules containing tuna fish oil (a source of omega 3 fatty acids) in "Tip-Top". Up bread".

Nano-sized Self-assembled Liquid Structures --"The Israeli Company Nutralease, utilises Nano-sized Self-assembled Liquid Structures (NSSL) technology to deliver nutrients in nanosized particles to cells. Nutraceuticals that have been incorporated in the carriers include lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, phytosterols, CoQ10 and DHA/EPA". "The technology has already been adopted and marketed by Shemen Industries to deliver Canola Activa oil".

Nanocochleates -- "Biodelivery Sciences International have developed nanocochleates, which are 50 nm coiled nanoparticles and can be used to deliver nutrients such as vitamins, lycopene, and omega fatty acids more efficiently to cells, without affecting the colour or taste of food".

Interactive and Smart Foods -- "Kraft foods have established a consortium of research groups from 15 universities to look into the applications of nanotechnology to produce interactive foods. These will allow the consumer to choose between different flavours and colours. The consortium also has plans to develop smart foods which will release nutrients in response to deficiencies detected by nanosensors, and nanocapsules which will be ingested with food, but remain dormant until activated. All these new developments will make the concept of super foodstuffs a reality, and these are expected to offer many different potential benefits including increased energy, improved cognitive functions, better immune function, and antiaging benefits".

Nano-carriers -- "The German company Aquanova has developed a new technology which combines two active substances for fat reduction and satiety into a single nano-carrier (micelles of average 30 nm diameter), an innovation said to be a new approach to intelligent weight management. Called NovaSOL Sustain, it uses CoQ1O to address fat reduction and alpha-lipoic acid for satiety. The NovaSol technology has also been used to create a vitamin E preparation that does not cloud liquids, called SoluE, and a vitamin C preparation called SoluC. The NovaSOL product can be used to introduce other dietary supplements as it protects contents from stomach acids. 43 In a different strategy, Unilever is developing low fat ice creams by decreasing the size of emulsion particles that give ice-cream its texture. By doing so it hopes to use up to 90% less of the emulsion and decrease fat content from 16% to about 1%".

The Nanoforum report provides other evidence that nanotechnology is now finding broad application:

"The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the US has produced a consumer database of marketed nanotechnology and has so far identified more than 15 items which have a direct relation to the food industry. The list includes nanoceuticals developed by RBC Life Sciences and Canola Activa oil developed by Shemen Industries; the use of silver nanoparticles in refrigerators manufactured by LG Electricals, Samsung and Daewoo to inhibit bacterial growth and eliminate odours; All Spray For Life® which is manufactured by Health Plus International and uses a newly-designed pre-metered, non-aerosol Nanoceautical Delivery System (NDS) for transmucosal administration of dietary supplements, resulting in increased-bioavailability compared with gastrointestinal absorption. A detailed list of products is available on the website".

According the report Down on the Farm by the ETC Group, BASF produces a nano-scale version of carotenoids, a class of food additives which it sells to major food and beverage companies worldwide for use in lemonades, fruit juices and margarines.

Taste Nanology and StabilEase are two recent examples of products developed by the California-based company Blue Pacific Flavors.

Questions Raised

The report Down on the Farm by the ETC Group -- and others -- show that the issue is not simple (see Resources below). Questions have to be asked, such as: Are high-tech solutions the best option or are low-tech or no-tech solutions available, possible, and more feasible and effective? Golden rice is often used as an example for a high-tech solution to vitamin A deficiency but aren't there other -- maybe better and cheaper -- ways available to deal with vitamin A deficiency? It is not self-evident or a forgone conclusion that high technology is the best or only solution for poverty, hunger and malnutrition (see UN report).

The Choice is Yours

Food is very important. It is your choice whether or not to get involved in the discourse on the scientific and technological modification of food. According to the UK food regulator, 'gaps' in regulating nanotechnology exist. It is your choice whether or not to get involved to make sure that these gaps are closed. It is also your choice to look at issues below the surface. In the case of nutraceuticals, for example, what is the best way to use bio, genetic, nano, low-tech, no-tech and social measures (or a combination) to eliminate malnutrition and disease -- especially for people in low-income countries.

Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, science and technology ethicist, disability/vari-ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology studies researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website.