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New Futuristic Nanofoods Sneaking Into Grocery Stores Every Week

Lack of regulation of these potentially dangerous, microscopic ingredients raises concerns about human health

Nanofoods. They may sound like an idea from a sci-fi movie or the wild musings of a mad-scientist, but in reality, nanomaterials — particles on the miniscule scale of atoms and molecules — have already found their way into our food. More likely than not, they are somewhere in your kitchen at this very moment. After all, commonly purchased products such plain yogurt, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Kraft Parmesan cheese, and Silk soymilk all contain nanomaterials, usually to either increase their shelf lives or make them appear more attractive to consumers.

a bowl of yogurt and fruit Photo by Janine/FlickrYour breakfast bowl of yogurt might have some titanium dioxide in it.

Generally defined as particles measuring less than 100 nanometers, these materials exhibit unique properties that differentiate them from their bulky counterparts. Nanoscale titanium dioxide, for example, is used to make milk and yogurt products whiter and brighter than they would appear naturally, increasing appeal to consumers. Nanoscale silica is used to improve “trickle and flow” in powdered food products. And nanosilver is used for its antimicrobial properties, added to anything from baby bottles, to ice trays, to salad bowls.

Currently, there are at least 93 nanofood products being sold in grocery stores throughout the United States, and that number is rapidly rising. According to a recent report by Friends of the Earth (FOE), three to four new nanofoods make their way to grocery store shelves each week. What is more, all of these foods are slipping through regulatory cracks, leaving open questions about their effect on human health and the environment. The FOE report raises concern about “a 10-fold increase in unregulated, unlabeled ‘nanofood’ products on the American market over the past six years.”

“Basically, what is occurring now is with this new wave of knowledge and understanding [about nanotechnology], companies are taking a small piece of this and trying to market products,” says Ian Illuminato, nanotechnology campaign coordinator with Friends of the Earth and author of the report. FOE and several other consumer groups are calling for further research, mandatory disclosure and labeling, and rigorous safety assessments of nanomaterials in food products.

The potential applications of nanotechnology within the food industry are seemingly endless. Additional uses include reduction of fat and caloric content of popular foods like ice cream, development of foods that change color or flavor according to allergies or taste preferences, increased shelf life of perishable products, and development of more potent fertilizers and pesticides. There is also potential for an entirely new type of genetic modification: crops and animals manipulated with nanobiotechnology.

Roughly 200 transnational food companies have invested billions of dollars in research and development of nanoproducts, fighting for their share of this new and growing market. Lagging behind, however, is research regarding the safety of nanofoods for human health and the environment. Expectedly, some initial studies on these topics suggest that there is reason for concern.

In terms of human health, nanomaterials can be more reactive than larger particles, and are also more likely to penetrate cells, tissues, organs, and even DNA. This heightened reactivity combined with greater access to our bodies leads to higher risks of toxicity. There is also evidence that nanomaterials compromise immune system responses, and that nanomaterials can be transferred in-utero between a mother and fetus.

“We get oil changes in our cars because if you have any particulate matter flowing around in the oil, it can really damage the engine. This in a sense is what is happening with nanos in our bodies,” explains Illuminato. “This stuff is so small that it can actually surpass the blood-brain barrier, which is a really formidable barrier in our bodies. So it can and end up in all sorts of organs… and it can also end up in bones — it can end up in places it just isn’t meant to be. So, I think in the simplest language, putting very tiny, random ingredients in your body that we don’t know about and that can go anywhere in your body is probably not a good idea.”

Nanomaterials also raise environmental concerns. They enter the environment through use in agro-chemicals and animal feed, as well as through food use and disposal among humans. Once in the environment, research shows that nanomaterials accumulate, and may even magnify, along the food chain, and could have serious impacts on both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Studies already indicate negative nanomaterial impacts on certain indicator species, including largemouth bass, zebra fish, water fleas, and algae.

Although the FDA has acknowledged the differences between nanomaterials and their larger counterparts, they have left the field unregulated, offering only non-binding guidance regarding the use of nanomateirals in food. In the United States, there are no specific safety requirements for nanomaterials in food products, nor are there any disclosure or labeling requirements (though Europe has begun to institute limited nanomaterial-labeling schemes for cosmetics and food).

“The root [of nanotechnology] is very interesting and could bring some interesting ideas on how to handle issues because it is such a far-reaching technology,” says Illuminato. “Yet we are surprised to find it in foods, and we are surprised by the fact that our government hasn’t taken any action other than providing guidance. In the end it is a complex science, but its not rocket science in terms of why would you have invisible ingredients with questionable safety profiles ending up in common foods without informing the public.”

Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. She holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and and writes about climate change, environmental justice, and food policy. Follow her on Twitter @ZoeLoftusFarren

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