Nanotechnology applications in the food industry include methods to extend shelf life, change taste and textures and modify the nutritional value. This technology impacts every aspect of the food industry from cultivation and processing to packaging and bioavailability of nutrients.
What is Nanotechnology?
"Nano-" from Latin nanus (“dwarf”). The term was popularized by Eric Drexler in 1986 with his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. In this book, Drexler proposes the idea of a nanoscale "assembler" or tiny machines which would be able to build objects atom by atom.
Nanotechnology is a field of applied sciences and technologies involving the control of matter on the atomic and molecular scale, normally below 100 nanometers (1).
This futuristic concept could make us remember the Julio Verne books but, in fact, it is a current field of investigation. The possibilities of nanotechnology are almost endless and human exposure to nanoparticles will increase in the near future.
In Europe, food containing engineered nanomaterials is considered a novel food. This tag includes all food that wasn't consumed significantly before 15 May 1997 because it has been newly developed, it is innovative or it is produced using new technologies and production processes.
Although promising, this nanotechnology needs more research with specific relevance for regulatory questions, for instance, the implementation of the definition of nanomaterials, the enforcement of product labelling and the development of methods for the safety testing of nanomaterials. To reduce all of this uncertainties, EFSA has opened a public consultation to establish the presence of small particles including nanoparticles in food and feed product applications. (2)
Applications of nanotechnology
Colour and texture
The small particle size and increased surface area give nanoparticle its magic features. For instance, nanoscale edible coatings which can act as a vehicle to deliver colours, flavours, antioxidants and enzymes. The nanoparticles of TiO2 (titanium dioxide) are used as a colouring in the powdered sugar coating on doughnuts.
The water-dispersible synthetic form of the tomato carotenoid, Lycopene is added to drinks to provide colour but also, it is claimed for certain health benefits. For example, in combination with vitamin E has been reported to inhibit the growth of prostate cancer in mice. (3)
Another example is the use of nanoparticle paprika oleoresin as an ingredient to enhance the effects of marination and the sensory qualities of the chicken breast fillets. (5)
New food packaging
Current researches focus on developing new and improved food-packaging materials. Polymer nanocomposite films with nanoparticles, nanosensors or antigen-detecting biosensors are being developed for use in “smart” packaging. This packaging has a film with biosensors which are able to detect spoilage organisms and trigger a colour change to alert the consumer that the shelf life is ending/ended.(3)
Other biosensors may detect the presence of some other gases such as gaseous amines, which are indicators of fish and meat spoilage, in very low concentrations. (6)
Researchers found a nanoemulsion prepared with sunflower oil which once used in the processing of fish, increased the shelf life of the product in 48 hours and reduced its initial microbial growth maintaining the quality of the fish. This technique indicates a potential use in the short-term storage of fish products. (7)
Another application of nanotechnology is the effect against E. coli and Staph. aureus of absorbent pads containing silver nanoparticles (8)
Food-borne virus detection
Researchers at the University of Guelph have developed gold nanoparticle films that can detect viruses with 500 times more sensitivity than the methods that are currently used and also, the amount of virus needed for detection was lower as well. (4)
The benefits of nanotechnology are endless and expected to continue growing. This novel technology will impact all aspect of the food system from production to processing, packaging, shelf life and bioavailability. Commercial applications of nanomaterials in the food industry will grow because of their unique properties and human exposure to nanomaterials will continue to increase.
Unfortunately, the absence of detailed toxicological data and the lack of information in terms of potential health risks that may arise from the consumption of nano-food and drinks forces to continue with the research with nanoparticles and establish a clear regulatory framework that controls the potential risks from the application of nanotechnology.
(2) EFSA (09/07/2020). Public consultation on the draft EFSA Guidance on technical requirements for regulated food and feed product applications to establish the presence of small particles including nanoparticles. Accessed 09/08/2020
(7) Joe et at. (2012). Influence of sunflower oil based nanoemulsion (AUSN-4) on the shelf life and quality of Indo-Pacific king mackerel (Scomberomorus guttatus) steaks stored at 20 °C. Accessed 05/08/2020