Nanotechnology and Food

nanotech_flickr_UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences

Nanotechnology applications for food are under investigation and development in a variety of academic and industrial laboratories, though products are only beginning to enter the marketplace.

The science may be applied to food products, food packaging, food processing, food testing, and in agriculture to deliver improved nutrition, safety, preservation, and other benefits.

But research shows consumers have very limited awareness of nanotech developments for food. When asked to weight the benefits and risks of food nanotech, responses depend on the specific benefits offered in the questioning.

Overall, consumers are concerned about the adequacy of testing and regulatory processes, and want to receive trustworthy information early in the technology development process. Skepticism about the use of nanotech in food seems to stem from questions about the motivations for technology development; whether consumers or manufacturers will be the primary beneficiaries; and whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Nanotechnology is expected to impact foods, packages, processing, and agriculture.
  • Consumer acceptance of food nanotechnology depends on the specific application and benefit. They want to know why nanotech will be used in food, who will benefit, and how the risks compare to the benefits.
  • The outcome of a broad variety of driving forces will determine future consumer attitudes.

OVERVIEW OF APPLICATIONS

Nanotechnology has the potential to provide benefits both within food products themselves and also “around food products” in the form of packaging and sensor systems. Many potential applications have been described, but the number of products actually available for consumption worldwide is difficult to determine, as is the current market size, which has been the subject of some speculative hype.

While 2005-era forecasts put the 2010–2012 market size in the $6 billion to $20 billion range, the market was described as “relatively small” as of 2009. Nevertheless, there is significant academic effort in food nanotech research, and a considerable number of food companies are thought to be pursuing nanotech applications. Emerging and potential applications span food products themselves, food packages, food safety systems, food processing, and agriculture.

  • Food ingredients: Benefits of nanotechnology to foods and food ingredients may include reductions in fat, salt, and sugar; improvements in flavor and texture; and health benefits such as improved bioavailability of nutrients. Examples include controlled delivery and release systems based on nanostructures, and edible nanoparticle sensors of food quality and safety. As food scientists point out, “many food structures naturally exist at the nanoscale.” An important safety issue is whether free, insoluble, engineered nanoparticles are present and can enter the bloodstream.
  • Food packaging: Nanotech can be used to enable active packaging (e.g., antimicrobial) and smart packaging (e.g., that includes nanosensors to monitor the condition of the enclosed product). Nanoparticles can be used as additives to create composite packaging materials with improved physical properties such as flexibility and barrier properties. A key concern is whether nanomaterials can migrate from the packaging to the food, and if so, what effect they may have on those who consume the food.
  • Food safety: To date, perhaps the greatest progress has been made in the application of nanotech to food safety. Examples include nanomaterials to detect pore-forming toxins, as well as nanosensor arrays and nanofluidic arrays to detect bacteria, pathogens, and toxins. These applications come in the form of sensors and devices with minimal potential to transfer nanomaterials to foods that will be consumed.
3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS
  1. Regarding studies of consumer attitudes toward food technology, it should be noted that although there is some correlation between attitudes expressed and actual purchase behavior, “stated intentions are an unreliable guide to actual behavior” for technologies that are not yet widely available. Actual purchase decisions include factors like price, taste, and convenience that may not be top-of-mind in a consumer research situation.
  2. It is hardly surprising that consumers are not clamoring for food nanotechnology—food consumers seek tangible and relevant benefits, not technology for its own sake. Perhaps the most crucial challenge for those developing food nanotech is to be able to state the consumer benefits in a clear, succinct, and compelling way.
  3. UK consumers want input to the food technology development process relatively far upstream in order to ensure that technology is applied as wisely as possible, using a broad set of success criteria. Manufacturers of food, as well as organizations in other sectors, should consider establishing processes to bring consumer input into the technology development process farther upstream, in order to anticipate consumer reaction to technology and build consumer trust.