Nano Food in the Grocery Store
A wide variety of nano-based products and processes are already on our plates, largely driven by the corporate sector, including Kraft Foods, H.J. Heinz, Nestle, Unilever, Cargill, Pepsi-Cola, Syngenta and Monsanto (Friends of the Earth, 2008). The Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars estimates at least 84 food-related items containing nano products are in the market, while investigations by Friends of the Earth report 104 food items and an additional 400-500 nano packaging products (Friends of the Earth, 2008). So what are the agri-food corporations up to at the nano scale?
The agri-chemical and information technology industries have shifted down to the nano-scale to produce new agricultural chemicals, seeds, and livestock with novel functions and capabilities, as well as new systems of farm monitoring and management (Kuzma and VerHage, 2006; Friends of the Earth, 2008). Syngenta, BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Cargill and Monsanto are all undertaking research and commercialization in these areas. Syngenta, for example, has harnessed the properties of nano-scale materials to produce nano pesticides including “gutbuster” microcapsules that contain pesticides engineered to break open in the alkaline conditions of an insect’s stomach. They argue this will enable the more targeted delivery of pesticides (Syngenta, 2007). The convergence of nanotechnologies with biotechnology, also provides industry with new tools to modify genes and even produce new organisms. For example, nanobiotechnologies enable nanoparticles, nanofibres and nanocapsules to carry foreign DNA and chemicals that modify genes (ETC Group, 2004; Torney et al., 2007). In addition to the re-engineering of existing plants, novel plant varieties may be developed using synthetic biology; a new branch of technoscience that draws on the techniques of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and informatics. In a recent breakthrough in this area, researchers completely replaced the genetic material of one bacteria with that from another—transforming it from one species to another (ETC Group, 2007). These technologies clearly up the ante, increasing both the opportunities and risks offered by each of these technologies in isolation.
Nanotechnologies are being used to manufacture entirely new foods. These include ‘smart’ foods—nutritional profiles that respond to an individual’s allergies, dietary needs or food preferences. While such
designer food sounds like the stuff of fantasy, nanotechnologies make them scientifically possible. Nanotechnology is also being used to alter the properties and traits of food; including its nutrition, flavor, texture, heat tolerance and shelf life. For example, Unilever has reported breakthroughs in the manufacture of lowfat and low-calorie food that retains its rich and creamy taste and texture, applying this to a range of very low-fat ice-creams, mayonnaise and spreads (Daniells, 2008). Meanwhile, food companies are using microcapsules to deliver food components such as omega 3-rich fish oil. The release of fish oil into the human stomach is intended to deliver claimed health benefits of the fish oil, while masking its fishy taste (Friends of the Earth, 2008).
Nano Food Packaging
Nano food packaging is the most commercialized of the agri-food nanotechnologies. Nano packaging materials include barrier technologies, which enhance the shelf life, durability and freshness of food—or at least slow the rotting process. DuPont produces a nano titanium dioxide plastic additive that reduces UV exposure that they claim will minimize damage to food contained in transparent packaging (ElAmin, 2008).
Nano packaging is also being designed to enable materials to interact with the food it contacts; emitting antimicrobials, antioxidants, nutraceuticals and other inputs. This ‘smart’ or ‘active’ packaging, as manufacturers brand it, is being developed to respond to specific trigger events. For example, packaging may contain nanosensors that are engineered to change color if a food is beginning to spoil, or if it has been contaminated by pathogens. This technology is already being used in the U.S. with carbon nanotubes incorporated into packaging materials to detect microorganisms, toxic proteins and food spoilage (ElAmin, 2008).