A missed opportunity to educate about “nanofoods.”

Posted by Stacey L. Harper at Feb 26, 2009 04:00 PM |

A National Geographic article -- "Nanofoods" Offer Big Flavor, Low Fat, Stealth Vitamins -- presents a fairly balanced picture of nanofoods. The idea, explains the article, is to either use smaller pieces of some foods or package them in very tiny portions to both boost flavor with fewer health drawbacks and add supplements. Salt, oil and vitamins were used as examples.

Reporter Richard A. Lovett vividly describes the wonderful improvements that could occur in the food and beverage sector. He also presents some of the concerns for the new, miniaturized food products.

However, some important considerations and challenges for the novel technology are overlooked or not explicitly addressed. A couple of major issues immediately come to mind.

First, many nanofoods are already available, a fact the article does not address. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, more than 90 nanotechnology applications for food and beverages are currently on the market.

Second, many nanoproducts have been introduced into foods before any safety evaluations have been conducted. Mr. Lovett does point out that nanofoods may interact with the body differently from conventional ingredients. He does not, however, include information on scientific studies showing that some normally benign materials become toxic to organisms when reduced to such small sizes  (such as silver nanoparticles, aluminum oxide).

Third, the lack of established regulations for nanofoods and the lack of effective testing strategies for evaluating nanoproducts should have been addressed.

A regulatory toxicologist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition is quoted as saying that “it is still pretty much a crapshoot” and that “we need to be proactive and take a look at this now to avoid any potential problems down the road.”

Outlining some of these proactive strategies could have added perspective about what can be done -- or what is being done -- by governments, industry and individuals to minimize future risks and problems associated with nanomaterials.

The public needs to become more educated about the benefits and risks of nanofoods -- and nanomaterials in general -- to engage in the discussions and debates that will guide nanotechnology development and use.