Recently concluded Nano4Food conference billed itself as “the first conference to offer a broad analysis on the requirements of the food industry, including manufacturing, distribution and consumption, and how nanotechnologies can address those needs by opening up new ways to develop more productive, economically feasible, fast-response and simple-to-use solutions that can provide a clear return on investment.” According to an article at the FoodNavigator.com, the food industry has an incredible number of ideas as well as concerns about the future of nanofoods:
Frans Kampers, the programme manager of bio-nanotechnology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands believes scientists and food processors will have to be more transparent about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology so the public can understand for themselves how nanofoods can be an important delivery system for medicines and nutrients.
“Consumer acceptance and how they view nanotechnology in food really needs attention,” Kampers said in an interview with FoodProductionDaily.com. “We do not want to end up in the GMO (genetically modified organisms) situation. We have to be honest and truthful so that the consumer can balance the risks and the benefits of nanofoods…”
Kampers says ongoing research by academics can help food processors in two ways, on the processing line and as a means of creating novel types of foods. It is the second use of nanotechnology, in the creation of nanofoods, that may be less acceptable to the public.
“You are not going to eat nanotechnology,” he said. “These machines are going to assure food quality. The difficulty is going to occur when you start adding nanoparticles to food.”
On the processing line nanotechnology can be used to create tiny sensors and diagnostic machines that can help ensure food does not leave the factory with contaminants. Such nanodevices can also help processors detect harmful microbes and determine the shelf life for their foods. Such fine scale detection could help food processors make strategic decisions, such as the best transportation method for their products and storage methods, Kampers said.
“The use of nanotechnology to ensure the quality of a food product has obvious benefits for consumers,” he said.
However, such robotic nanosensors and detectors are still being developed in food processing and research laboratories. Kampers forecasts that the first such machines will appear on the food production line within four years.
It’s in the creation of foods imbedded with nanoparticles that he expects the public to sit up and take notice. Researchers generally refer to nanofoods as being embedded with either “soft particles”, those using common biological materials or with “hard particles”, made up of non-organic substances.
Edible nanoparticles can be made of silicon or ceramics, or materials that react with the body’s heat or chemistry, such as polymers.
“We are confident that some of the soft particle nanofoods are really harmless,” Kampers said. “The body is accustomed to soft particles. They look like normal cells that the body knows about.”
Hard particles are a different story. Here the work is more speculative as the body is not used to injesting and processing such substances, even if they are so tiny. As they are so tiny, nanoparticles exhibit different chemical behaviour than would normally be found in larger masses of material. Quantum mechanics, the behaviour of particles and surfaces at the microscopic level, comes into play.
“We do not really know exactly how these nanoparticles go through different routes in the body and where they end up,” he said. “We need more research about hte effects on food and on the body.”