Nanomaterials in Your Food. Safe Bet or Sabotage?

You are what you eat, whether you know it’s in there or not.

Nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes, graphene and a host of others are getting daily attention for their potential. Engineering at the atomic scale may enable medical and technological breakthroughs we can’t even imagine at present, but is there a tradeoff? There have long been questions around how nanomaterials affect human health and the environment, but the increasing prevalence of these materials is bringing these concerns closer to home. Like, in your refrigerator close.

Recently, there has been a flurry of stories on the presence of nanomaterials in food. To clarify, there are nanoscale compounds which occur naturally, but those are not what are getting attention. Rather, it is food additives which are used to modify properties such as color or shelf life. An example is nanoscale titanium dioxide particles. Using titanium dioxide to enhance the whiteness of products such as toothpaste is not new, but it has not always been nanoscale.

So that raises a crucial question, “Is it safe to eat nanomaterials?” The use of nanoscale ingredients is not regulated in the U.S., and there is still a lack of conclusive evidence either against or for the safety of these ingredients in food. The unique properties of nanomaterials make them desirable for a number of applications, but those same properties, such as high specific surface area and high reactivity, may also make them harmful in fundamentally different ways. They can also move through the body in ways not common among larger versions of the same material.

At particular risk are workers involved in preparing the materials or servicing equipment used in producing them. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently released updated guidelines for engineering controls in nanomaterials processing. There are currently well over 1,000 consumer products which incorporate nanomaterials with more entering the market daily. Many of these products are not for consumption, but if exposure during processing has raised sufficient concerns to warrant government guidelines, what about intentionally feeding these materials to people?

As it turns out, the Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) has taken up the task of examining nanomaterials in products. The problem is, it hasn’t led to regulation. The FDA created a non-binding draft for industrial practice when using “emerging technologies,” but it doesn’t require companies to report changes in their products. Denmark, on the other hand, has enacted requirements on manufacturers to report the use of nanomaterials.

Many technologies that incorporate nanomaterials or nanoscale features have these features sealed within their structure (e.g., integrated circuits) and ingestion or release into the environment is not as likely. As society gets more comfortable seeing “nano” plastered on packaging, it is possible we may get a little too cozy before we have good science to verify their safety. We have a long history of toxic materials that didn’t pose problems until years later (e.g., asbestos or lead). The rapid development of these nanomaterials without due diligence in assessing safety may lengthen that list in the future.

As someone who develops nanoscale materials, it is concerning not knowing exactly what threats these new technologies pose, but there is good reason to keep pushing the boundaries… at least in some areas of research. Do we really need nano-enhanced food? In lieu of FDA regulation, maybe the old adage, “better safe than sorry,” just might be all the more guidance companies need.

For more on products containing “nanotechnology,” check out the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and their ongoing inventory.


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