Nanofood: Safe and Green Cuisine

Food created with nanotechnology is healthful for humans and environmentally friendly. Pro or con?

Pro: Dish up the Nanofood

The statistics are alarming. Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention show that one in four Americans is sickened by a food-borne illness each year.

Moreover, producing and distributing food accounts for approximately 19% of U.S. energy use, according to the journal Human Ecology. But a solution to both problems is in sight. Appropriately employing nanotechnology can help address energy concerns and threats to the safety and security of America’s food supply.

Nanotechnology, generally defined as the manipulation and control of matter at dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers (hundreds of times thinner than a human hair), has already led to several innovations affecting our lives, including smaller microchips, self-cleaning textiles, and more easily absorbed sunscreens.

Although use of nanotechnology in the food industry is, by comparison, still in its nascent stages, it has already led to safer, more efficient production and distribution. For example, new packaging designs employ nano-engineered materials to make food containers less permeable and imbue them with anti-microbial coatings, helping to keep foods fresher, safer, and healthier. What’s more, beyond decreasing the risk of post-production contamination, such packaging potentially reduces the energy required to store and ship foods.

Similar technologies provide anti-microbial coatings to almost any food preparation surface, from kitchen counters to factory food-processing areas, further improving food safety. Plus, nanomaterials can increase the heating efficiency of cookware, reducing energy costs associated with food production. In the future, nanotechnology could produce quicker and more accurate testing of food-borne pathogens in all stages of food production and distribution.

Nanotechnology, like any scientific innovation, may present its own set of risks and challenges. While we cannot ignore these issues, we also cannot disregard the full potential of these technologies to meet the very real challenges facing America’s food supply, by both reducing the risks of contamination and improving efficiency of production.

Con: Think Before You Eat Nano

Nanotechnology has the potential to create odor-free socks, longer-lasting batteries, greaseless sunscreen—and even junk food that can’t make you fat.

Although many of its applications remain largely theoretical, nanotechnology already has found its way into hundreds of products, many of them foods. Exactly how many is unknown, because companies don’t have to report its use, and for now, nanotechnology is unregulated. Without a better handle on its effects, we can’t let the production of food with nanotechnology continue unchecked.

Research has shown that materials shrunk down to less than 100 nanometers don’t behave the same way as their large-scale counterparts. A 2006 study by a University of Rochester toxicologist showed that when rats inhaled certain fullerenes—a type of nanoparticle—they spread to the rats’ brains, Some scientists suspect a link between these particles and brain damage, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions. A 2004 Southern Methodist University study found that largemouth bass suffered brain damage after exposure to carbon-60, a type of fullerene.

Terms like “fullerene” and “carbon-60” might make you doze off, so here’s a more familiar one: asbestos, the former “miracle mineral” whose ultrafine particles are now known to be carcinogenic. Scientists have compared asbestos to nanomaterials. A study published in Nature in May 2008 showed that carbon nanotubes are similar in shape to asbestos fibers and may pose similar cancer risks. These nanotubes, though not used in food, are often combined with drugs in hospitals, so they make their way into the body all the same.

If nanoparticles can do this much damage when inhaled or injected, the ones we eat could have unforeseen consequences. Our limited understanding of this technology should give manufacturers pause. In 2006 testimony to the FDA, the Consumers Union argued for more oversight of nanotechnology in food, saying “lack of evidence of harm should not be a proxy for reasonable certainty of safety.” In other words, what you can’t see can hurt you.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

random

It's unfair to compare carbon fullerenes and asbestos as being the same without providing the complete data. In the same Nature study, the same scientists who published the risks also noted that a slight change in the manufacturing process that changed the needle-shaped particles into clumps or spheres almost eliminates carcinogenic risks. They also add that this has been known since the 1980s; it just hadn't been tested and confirmed before.

You can't manufacture asbestos to cancel out its health risks, but you can do that with nanomaterials.

balance

Health risks cannot be engineered out of a material if it's not known what those risks are. For most nanomaterials, the possible health and environmental risks they pose is poorly understood or not understood at all, and far too little emphasis is being put on filling in this knowledge gap.

We've been around the block enough times now, and there are enough warning signs already with this technology, that we should beyond simply taking a "wait-and-see" approach, taking action only when the damage has been done (e.g., people are sick and the environment is polluted), and regulating in a piece-meal, reactionary fashion. We should take a responsible, precautionary approach to nanotechnology to help ensure its greatest benefits to society's needs without needlessly putting people or our environment at risk. Being more proactive in understanding nano's risks will also help the industry overall (through higher public confidence, for one thing) and the technology's development.

It should be pointed out also that, while you might be able to engineer nanotubes so they don't resemble asbestos (which is important), that doesn't mean these nanotubes are then more benign when they later enter the environment (via landfills, sewer systems, etc).

silenced voice of truth

It is well known that genetically vegetables mutate. These mutations are unpredictable. Until it can be proven that nanotechnology does not have any health effects, it should not be used in food applications. The health of unsuspecting people is not worth the risk. There are plenty of safer applications for nanotechnology. It is a shame that our government allows companies to saturate our food with something that has had very little research done on it, but bans individuals from using marijuana. Marijuana has proven itself.

Squeezebox

In the dark ages, science was deemed to be witchcraft, and scientists were tried for heresy. People didn't understand how the world worked, made assumptions later proven untrue, and attacked people who wouldn't accept the assumptions as the truth. The fight against nanomaterials and genetically modified foods has a similar feel. Just because something might be dangerous, people want to shut down the science entirely. How about a middle ground? Do the research ethically, and keep an eye open for the negative side effects, but don't assume that they will happen.

Jackson Pruitt

My fear with nano is with the opportunities to cause harm, as there is an ever-increasing volume of imported foods. Our FDA cannot possibly monitor the large volumes of foods from around the world. Combine a timed release, and it could be devastating. I'm not trying to be paranoid here, but the risks are evident.

Larry

We washed auto parts in gasoline, and smoking was healthy. Put on those goggles guys, and let's watch the nuclear explosion. GMO--we can control it. Oops, maybe not.

Nonotechnology--it's great, and what could go wrong? Just because we don't understand how it really reacts in our bodies after 30 years.

There's a place for new technology, and let's hope we can get off petroleum products soon with new technology. Food we eat--let's be cautious and do research with plenty of long-term studies.

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