As I write this, we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the buckyball, named after the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, who popularized the geodesic dome. The roundish molecule that resembles the dome is made completely of carbon, 60 atoms of it, and it is hollow. The buckyball’s real name is Buckminsterfullerene C60. And it doesn’t exist in nature. It’s one of the increasing number of nanostructures being created by scientists around the world.
To better understand what is meant by nano, it’s defined as any engineered materials 100 nanometers or less. Imagine the width of a human hair: That’s about 80,000 of these nanometers wide. But the technology is huge, with global corporations, and smaller ones, trying to cash in on it because it promises great advances in engineering, medicine, pharmaceuticals. And, flying in under the radar, in food packaging, even in food itself.
Now, you’d think that if the global food industry is busily inventing and producing products that use nanotechnology, they also have done the necessary research on its safety, wouldn’t you? Not if you’re familiar with the way these corporations, and the government agencies that are supposed to regulate them, operate. As far as nanotechnology in the food industry, the research is decidedly lacking, even though many in the industry admit that it has already entered the food chain.
In fact, that pretty piece of fruit you’re holding may be nano-ized. According to Andrew Schneider, a senior correspondent for AOL News (and a Pulitzer Prize winner), one government scientist he interviewed for his three-part series on nanotechnology said that “nanoparticles can be found today in produce sections in some large grocery chains and vegetable wholesalers.” The scientist was a member of a Department of Agriculture group examining Central and South American farms and packers that ship produce into this country. Schneider reports that this researcher told him fruits and vegetables from those farms and packers are receiving a wax-like nanocoating to extend their shelf life and keep them colorful longer.
That would explain the mounds of perfect-looking, almost creepy fruit at my local supermarket. That same researcher added this: “We found no indication that the nanocoating, which is manufactured in Asia, has ever been tested for health effects.”
Nanotechnology is entering our food supply in other ways, too. Clay nanoparticles are being used to prevent air from entering plastic bottles containing beer, for example, so the beer stays fresh longer. Nanomaterials are being added to plastic food storage containers for the same reason. An antibacterial, carbon-based nanopackaging has been developed in China, where developers say it can be used to extend shelf life. In England, the University of Leeds has been testing packaging made with nanoparticles of zinc, calcium, magnesium oxide and titanium dioxide, to be used in antimicrobial packaging, again to extend shelf life.
In Sweden, one company is about to complete a plant that will produce nanocelluose, which will be used in packaging for baked goods. And Bayer Polymers is producing a nanoclay coating for the inside of juice cartons. Other companies are developing “smart” nanosensors to detect the presence of such pathogens as Salmonella and Listeria.
That would seem to be a good thing, I admit. It would be a good thing if research had already shown that nanoparticles don’t migrate from packaging into the food itself, but that is not the case. In Europe (where food regulations are much stricter than they are here), researchers have been looking at the problem of migration from nanopackaging into food; they concluded that it depended on how the nanolayer was applied, but that where the food is in direct contact with the nano-stuff, there is a great risk of migration.
In fact, the European Parliament’s environment committee has already called for the withdrawal of products containing nanotechnology already on the market until their safety can be proven. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has strongly recommended that nanosilver, which is used as an antibacterial coating in many products, not be used in any consumer goods at all until its safety can be proven.
Here? You’re on your own. (Surprise!) Not only do we not have conclusive evidence that the stuff is safe, we also have no way of knowing what products contain it or are packaged in it. The global giant Unilever recently said that should we require nano foods to be labeled, which we don’t, the labels should provide “meaningful and specific information to consumers.” They added (surprise!) that the company isn’t in favor of alerting the public to the presence of nanomaterials, which “could be seen as risk warnings.”
Many food manufacturers have actually stopped promoting their research and discoveries in the nanotech arena precisely because they don’t want to alarm consumers. An expert from the global markets research firm Lux Research told Food Navigator USA, “Unilever and Nestle are doing research on texture enhancement for example, for things like ice cream. But they are worried about profitability.” The one thing that could potentially affect those profits? Consumer fears.
So how might the industry gain our trust, our acceptance of their technological magic? In a recent column on Food Production Daily, Caroline Scott-Thomas reports on the Institute of Food Technologists’ nanoscience conference the previous week. There, she writes, “Major industry players discussed how to avoid a rerun of the GMO debacle with consumers, with some saying that one solution could be to say nothing about introducing nanotechnology in foods and to do it anyway.” But don’t worry; the FDA is handling it!
No, not really. In fact, from that same online column we learn that another presenter at the conference, Laura Tarantino of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “provided an overview of the range of FDA authorities over food products and argued that nanotechnology can be viewed as a special case of what the FDA has been doing all along with food. Essentially, the burden of proof is on manufacturers to show that any changes they have made do not affect safety.”
So how safe are they? In Nanotechnology in Food Products, published last year by the National Academies Press, we read that carbon nanomaterials “can cause inflammatory disease and destruction in the lungs with widespread formation of granulomas.” A granuloma is a mass of cells formed to attempt to wall off a foreign substance in the body that is perceived as harmful. The authors add, “Based on data from studies like this, it is well known now that a variety of nanomaterials interact with the immune system to produce effects ranging from mild stimulation of the immune system to severe granulomatous change in, for instance, the lung.”
There’s more. “Despite the lack of clarity around what exactly is causing the damage, it appears that some organs, namely the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes, tend to accumulate nanomaterial much more quickly than other organs do.” The liver, spleen, and lymph nodes are the body’s filters and remove, we hope, harmful substances we ingest either unknowingly or on purpose. The problem is that our filters are designed to filter out particles of a certain size. Are they able to filter nano-sized particles? The authors of the workshop proceedings say the nanomaterials picked up by the liver and other organs “then diffuse through the tissue(s) such that their exact cellular location cannot be pinpointed.”
Other studies have shown that carbon nano particles used in food packaging act like asbestos, and that exposure may cause mesothelioma, or lung cancer, in mice. In other words, once the nano particles migrate from food packaging into food, they then migrate from the organs that are meant to filter out harmful substances into other parts of our bodies. The filters seem to have no effect on such tiny particles. The authors add, “These are issues that need to be considered soon because some of the nanomaterials mentioned and described . . . have already started appearing in food.” Unilever in particular, although they’re probably not tooting their own horn on this one, has reported breakthroughs in lowfat and low calorie food that keep the creamy taste and texture; they’re applying the technology to a range of low-fat ice creams, spreads, and mayonnaise.
You can go to www.nanotechproject.org and click on the “Inventories” button on top for a complete listing of nano products already known to be in use. If you search by category, the health and nutrition listing might be your first stop, especially for cosmetics and personal care items. You’ll also see that the food listing is thankfully short (but longer than the last time I looked at it), which means that the manufacturers may indeed by slipping the nano-stuff in the sneaky way. The supplements listing, by the way, is quite lengthy. And the food storage list contains everything from aluminum foil to refrigerators, and, of course, those plastic beer bottles.
Yet the industry is in charge of telling us their stuff is safe, and we have no regulations for nano, and no testing or labeling requirements. And according to Friends of the Earth, nano-based products are already on our plates and in our pantries, thanks to such powerhouses as Kraft, Heinz, Nestle, Unilever, Cargill, Pepsi, and our dear friends at Monsanto. Back in 2008, the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars estimated that at least 84 food-related items containing nano products were already in stores.
How many now? We don’t know, and the manufacturers aren’t telling us. I’ll leave you with this unsettling thought from Schneider’s series on AOL News. The experts he spoke with said they fear a repeat of the debacles of asbestos, DDT and PCBs, when government authorities ignored the warning signs until a full-blown public health problem was at hand: “How long should the public have to wait before the government takes protective action?” asks one. “Must the bodies stack up first?”
Let’s hope not, but there’s a silver lining to that particular cloud: At least if when that happens, we’ll have plenty of antibacterial packaging on hand.
For your reading pleasure:
The three-part article on AOL.com can be found here: http://www.aolnews.com/category/nanotech/
The key findings from that series can be found here: http://www.aolnews.com/nanotech/article/the-nanotech-gamble-aol-news-key-findings/19410735
Nanotechnology in Food Products: Workshop Summary from the National Academies Press, can be downloaded for free here: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12633.html
Even the manufacturers don’t know if it’s safe: http://www.foodqualitynews.com/Innovation/More-research-needed-to-fill-nanotech-knowledge-gaps/