Nanotechnology: so small the eye can’t see it, but it’s changing the world around you in fantastic ways. The uses in medicine, commercial products, and food are likely to change the world forever. Is it safe to eat nanoparticles so small you can’t see them?
Nanotechnology used in food involves nanoparticles, as small as 1 to 100 nanometers in size, in food. Product tests have found nanoparticles in M&M’s, Betty Crocker Whipped Cream Frosting, Jell-O Banana Cream Pudding, ToddlerHealth (a nutritional drink powder for infants), Mentos, Trident and Dentyne gums, Dunkin’ Donuts Powdered Cake Donuts, Hostess Donettes, Vanilla Milkshake Pop Tarts, and Nestlé Original Coffee Creamer. Benefits of using these products in food are many including greater color variety, time-released pesticides, and replacing antibotics with nanotech that fights germs.
Nanotechnology is also being used in food packaging. These particles are not intended to be eaten but questions have been raised as to how likely these are to end up in food. The benefits include longer shelf-life, increased ability to keep food warm, anti-microbial and anti-fungal protections, and more. Companies that seem to have adopted nanotechnology into food containers include McDonalds, who uses them for burger containers. Miller Light & Corona beers may be using nanotechnology to make bottles less likely to break. Cadbury Chocolate packaging may use nanosilver anti-microbial food containers. Companies such as Kraft are cited as developing packaging that uses nanotechnology to extend product shelf life or change color when the food has spoiled.
Nanotechnology also may enter the human body through our skin as its increasingly used in cosmetics. An FDA fact sheet suggests manufacturers may wish to adjust product safety tests when adding nanotechnology to products. Cosmetics are not subject to a premarket approval process and those companies making cosmetics are legally responsible for the safety of their products and labeling. Many sunscreen products on the market use nanotechnology as well as some shampoos and deodorants.
Debate about food safety with changes to our food supply such as genetic modification (GMO) has led to protests around the world and led to labeling or even banning GMO products in many countries. Like GMOs, the debate about the safety of nanotech in food is ongoing. The European Union was one of the first to halt GMO use in their member countries and the Committee on Environment, Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament voted to exclude nanotechnology from the EU list of novel foods allowed on the market. The vote was 42 in favor, 2 against and 3 not voting.
Some studies have warned of harm to human health when nanotechnology is ingested. An extensive report by the organization Friends of the Earth noted the body’s defensive mechanisms are not designed to deal with nanoparticles which end up in our lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and organs. The report points to a study showing nanoparticles are more adhesive than larger particles to surfaces within our bodies. Some in vitro experiments show that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (used in Dunkin Donuts among others) damage DNA, disrupt the function of cells, interfere with the defense activities of immune cells and, by adsorbing fragments of bacteria and “smuggling” them across the gastro-intestinal tract, can provoke inﬂammation.
In the US neither labeling nor safety testing by federal authorities are required for the use of nanotechnology in food. However the FDA fact sheet encourages manufacturers to decide if adding nanotechnology has significantly changed the product to the point that it would warrant a regulatory submission to FDA. The FDA suggests manufacturers consult with the agency before taking their products to market. Such consultation can help FDA experts address questions related to the safety or other attributes of nanotechnology products.
How can concerned individuals avoid nanotechnology in their food? Those worried about GMOs can buy organic; however, the USA allows nanotechnology to be used in products labeled organic. In 2010, Canada banned Nanotechnology in their organic food. The US-based Organic Crop Improvement Association has added a clause 1.2.13, stating “[t]he use of artificial nanoscale processes is prohibited within the organic system.” Still, this only applies to organic products under their system. It is possible many organic products already have begun to use nanotechnology in the US. Consumers are busy fighting for GMO labeling and banning and seem mostly unaware of food being changed through nanoparticles. Hans Lyons, a recent NAU graduate, said he was unaware this was in food until recently but he thinks “they should be considered in the same category as GMOs in that both should be labeled, especially if they are as common as you suggest.” Arizona Senator Ed Ableser remarked “as consumers, we must have all the information about the foods we eat, so we can make wise and informed decisions. It scares me knowing that I am buying food for myself, and my family, and it may not be labeled appropriately.”
A facebook group called Label Nanofoods commented that “Nanoparticles are similar to GMOs in that no real long-term studies are being required to prove the safety of technology before being used. They are also similar in that there is a complete lack of transparency by the corporations using this technology to even notify the consumer they are being used. It is as if the consumer no longer should care what they consume but only its cost and how long they must work to able to afford to buy more of it. The lack of transparency by corporations engaged in experiments with their consuming masses that are affecting the human genome is something the conscious consumer is no longer willing to tolerate. Do you trust things this small in your food? Some [nanoparticles] may be safe and others may be toxic to the human body. This is why regulation, transparency, and industry standards should put in place to protect the consumer from an industry that has emerged and is operating in the shadows of corporate food science labs. If these corporations were not operating in such secrecy and with lack of transparency to the technology they are knowingly using one might trust those engineering food to the desires of corporate profits.”
A small movement to require labeling the use nanoparticles is forming. In 2012, A number of food safety groups filed suit claiming public safety was endangered by the failure to regulate nanotech, with the EPA claiming the groups lack standing. Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director at International Center for Technology Assessment, said they “won a lawsuit against the FDA on food, cosmetics and sunscreens almost 2 years ago. We got them to agree not to use GRAS review for nanotech in food contact substances, food additives, and colorants. The FDA issued this as a draft guidance, but it is not yet finalized.”
Ultimately, it is up to consumers to let government and food producers know if they feel safe consuming nanoparticles. Michael Rainsborough, from the Center for Nanotechnology & Society, offered his perspective:
“Nanotechnology is not a particular technology per se. It’s more like an industrial strategy. All the Fortune 500 companies are looking to use material science applications at the molecular level in their products to gain an advantage against their business competitors, like make the product cheaper (nano manufactured computer chips) or able to do something it couldn’t previously do (water resistant clothing). They are now beginning to use these applications in food and food packaging. Not all of the health impacts of allowing nanoparticles into the human body have been properly studied. We do know that nanoparticles can pass through the blood-brain barrier or cross the human placenta, meaning they could be transferred from a pregnant woman to the unborn child.”