I wouldn’t expect to find an article about food in a magazine titled Popular Mechanics but there it is, a Feb. 19,2014 article by Christina Ortiz (Note: A link has been removed),
For a little more than a decade, the food industry has been using nanotechnology to change the way we grow and maintain our food. The grocery chain Albertsons currently has a list of nanotech-touched foods in its home brand, ranging from cookies to cheese blends.
Nanotechnology use in food has real advantages: The technology gives producers the power to control how food looks, tastes, and even how long it lasts.
Looks Good and Good for You?
The most commonly used nanoparticle in foods is titanium dioxide. It’s used to make foods such as yogurt and coconut flakes look as white as possible, provide opacity to other food colorings, and prevent ingredients from caking up. Nanotech isn’t just about aesthetics, however. The biggest potential use for this method involves improving the nutritional value of foods.
Nano additives can enhance or prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. In an email interview with Popular Mechanics, Jonathan Brown, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, says this method could be used to make mayonnaise less fattening by replacing fat molecules with water droplets.
I did check out US grocer, Albertson’s list of ‘nanofoods’, which they provide and discovered that it’s an undated listing on the Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies’ Consumer Products Inventory (CPI). The inventory has been revived recently after lying moribund for a few years (my Oct. 28, 2013 posting describes the fall and rise) and I believe that this 2013 CPI incarnation includes some oversight and analysis of the claims made, which the earlier version did not include. Given that the Albertson’s list is undated it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of the claims regarding the foodstuffs.
If you haven’t read about nanotechnology and food before, the Ortiz article provides a relatively even-handed primer although it does end on a cautionary note. In any event, it was interesting to get a bit of information about the process of ‘nanofood’ regulation in the US and other jurisdictions (from the Ortiz article),
Aside from requiring manufacturers to provide proof that nanotechnology foods are safe, the FDA has yet to implement specific testing of its own. But many countries are researching ways to balance innovation and regulation in this market. In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an annual risk assessment report outlining how the European Union is addressing the issue of nanotech in food. In Canada the Food Directorate “is taking a case-by-case approach to the safety assessment of food products containing or using nanomaterials.”
I featured the FDA’s efforts regarding regulation and ‘nanofood’ in an April 23, 2012 posting,
It looks to me like this [FDA's draft guidance for 'nanofoods'] is an attempt to develop a relationship where the industry players in the food industry to police their nanotechnology initiatives with the onus being on industry to communicate with the regulators in a continuous process, if not at the research stage certainly at the production stage.
At least one of the primary issues with any emerging technology revolves around the question of risk. Do we stop all manufacturing and development of nanotechnology-enabled food products until we’ve done the research? That question assumes that taking any risks is not worth the currently perceived benefits. The corresponding question, do we move forward and hope for the best? does get expressed perhaps not quite so baldly; I have seen material which suggests that research into risks needlessly hampers progress.
After reading on this topic for five or so years, my sense is that most people are prepared to combine the two approaches, i.e., move forward while researching possible risks. The actual conflicts seem to centre around these questions, how quickly do we move forward; how much research do we need; and what is an acceptable level of risk?
On the topic of researching the impact that nanoparticles might have on plants (food or otherwise), a January 24, 2013 North Dakota State University (NDSU) news release highlights a student researcher’s work on soil, plants, and zinc oxide nanoparticles,
NDSU senior Hannah Passolt is working on a project that is venturing into a very young field of research. The study about how crops’ roots absorb a microscopic nutrient might be described as being ahead of the cutting-edge.
In a laboratory of NDSU’s Wet Ecosystem Research Group, in collaboration with plant sciences, Passolt is exploring how two varieties of wheat take up extremely tiny pieces of zinc, called nanoparticles, from the soil.
As a point of reference, the particles Passolt is examining are measured at below 30 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.
“It’s the mystery of nanoparticles that is fascinating to me,” explained the zoology major from Fargo. “The behavior of nanoparticles in the environment is largely unknown as it is a very new, exciting science. This type of project has never been done before.”
In Passolt’s research project, plants supplied by NDSU wheat breeders are grown in a hydroponic solution, with different amounts of zinc oxide nanoparticles introduced into the solution.
Compared to naturally occurring zinc, engineered zinc nanoparticles can have very different properties. They can be highly reactive, meaning they can injure cells and tissues, and may cause genetic damage. The plants are carefully observed for any changes in growth rate and appearance. When the plants are harvested, researchers will analyze them for actual zinc content.
“Zinc is essential for a plant’s development. However, in excess, it can be harmful,” Passolt said. “In one of my experiments, we are using low and high levels of zinc, and the high concentrations are showing detrimental effects. However, we will have to analyze the plants for zinc concentrations to see if there have been any effects from the zinc nanoparticles.”
Passolt has conducted undergraduate research with the Wet Ecosystem Research Group for the past two years. She said working side-by-side with Donna Jacob, research assistant professor of biological sciences; Marinus Otte; professor of biological sciences; and Mohamed Mergoum, professor of plant sciences, has proven to be challenging, invigorating and rewarding.
“I’ve gained an incredible skill set – my research experience has built upon itself. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a pretty big role in an important study. To me, that is invaluable,” Passolt said. “To put effort into something that goes for the greater good of science is a very important lesson to learn.”
According to Jacob, Passolt volunteered two years ago, and she has since become an important member of the group. She has assisted graduate students and worked on her own small project, the results of which she presented at regional and international scientific conferences. “We offered her this large, complex experiment, and she’s really taken charge,” Jacob said, noting Passolt assisted with the project’s design, handled care of the plants and applied the treatments. When the project is completed, Passolt will publish a peer-reviewed scientific article.
“There is nothing like working on your own experiment to fully understand science,” Jacob said. “Since coming to NDSU in 2006, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group has worked with more than 50 undergraduates, possible only because of significant support from the North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program, known as INBRE, of the NIH National Center for Research Resources.”
Jacob said seven undergraduate students from the lab have worked on their own research projects and presented their work at conferences. Two articles, so far, have been published by undergraduate co-authors. “I believe the students gain valuable experience and an understanding of what scientists really do during fieldwork and in the laboratory,” Jacob said. “They see it is vastly different from book learning, and that scientists use creativity and ingenuity daily. I hope they come away from their experience with some excitement about research, in addition to a better resume.”
Passolt anticipates the results of her work could be used in a broader view of our ecosystem. She notes zinc nanoparticles are an often-used ingredient in such products as lotions, sunscreens and certain drug delivery systems. “Zinc nanoparticles are being introduced into the environment,” she said. “It gets to plants at some point, so we want to see if zinc nanoparticles have a positive or negative effect, or no effect at all.”
Researching nanoparticles the effects they might have on the environment and on health is a complex process as there are many types of nanoparticles some of which have been engineered and some of which occur naturally, silver nanoparticles being a prime example of both engineered and naturally occurring nanoparticles. (As well, the risks may lie more with interactions between nanomaterials.) For an example of research, which seems similar to the NDSU effort, there’s this open access research article,
Low Concentrations of Silver Nanoparticles in Biosolids Cause Adverse Ecosystem Responses under Realistic Field Scenario by Benjamin P. Colman, Christina L. Arnaout, Sarah Anciaux, Claudia K. Gunsch, Michael F. Hochella Jr, Bojeong Kim, Gregory V. Lowry, Bonnie M. McGill, Brian C. Reinsch, Curtis J. Richardson, Jason M. Unrine, Justin P. Wright, Liyan Yin, and Emily S. Bernhardt. PLoS ONE 2013; 8 (2): e57189 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057189
One last comment, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group (WERG) mentioned in the news release about Passolt has an interesting history (from the homepage; Note: Links have been removed),
Marinus Otte and Donna Jacob brought WERG to the Department of Biological Sciences in the Fall of 2006. Prior to that, the research group had been going strong at University College Dublin, Ireland, since 1992.
The aims for the research group are to train graduate and undergraduate students in scientific research, particularly wetlands, plants, biogeochemistry, watershed ecology and metals in the environment. WERG research covers a wide range of scales, from microscopic (e.g. biogeochemical processes in the rhizosphere of plants) to landscape (e.g. chemical and ecological connectivity between prairie potholes across North Dakota). Regardless of the scale, the central theme is biogeochemistry and the interactions between multiple elements in wet environments.
The group works to collaborate with a variety of researchers, including soil scientists, geologists, environmental engineers, microbiologists, as well as with groups underpinning management of natural resources, such the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Natural Resources of Red Lake Indian Reservation, and the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Water Quality.
Currently, WERG has several projects, mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota. Otte and Jacob are also Co-directors of the North Dakota INBRE Metal Analysis Core, providing laboratory facilities and mentoring for researchers in undergraduate colleges throughout the state. Otte and Jacob are also members of the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium.