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.
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.
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