I’m back in Washington, D.C. after a trip to the wonderful city of Chicago to attend the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2010 Annual Meeting & Food Expo, where food science experts from around the world representing academia, industry, and government gather to learn about the latest innovations in food science and technology.  While I gained several new insights pertaining to the latest food science innovations at the conference, what impressed me the most was an introductory session on food nanoscience.  There’s a lot to learn about the potential benefits of this emerging technology. The following is a brief overview of what I learned.

Defining Nanotechnology

It’s hard to begin a discussion regarding nanotechnology without a foundational definition.  While the most referenced definition comes from the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a simplified definition of nanotechnology is “a science that involves the design and application of structures, devices and systems on an extremely small scale, called the nanoscale – that is, billionths of a meter, or about 1-millionth the size of a pinhead.”  Many of us would probably envision nanomaterials as products or components synthesized in a lab; however, nanoscale components occur naturally as well (i.e. casein proteins in milk).

Nanotechnology Applications in Food and Agriculture

While nanotechnology has revolutionized the fields of medicine, electronics, energy, and defense, its application in food science is relatively new, as most of the research in this area is in its infancy.  That said, developmental research is pointing toward a promising future for the application of nanotechnology in both food and agricultural production. A few of the potential benefits of food nanoscience include:

• Improved food safety
• Enhanced food quality and stability
• Advanced ingredient and nutrient delivery systems in food products
• Improved processing and packaging systems
• Reduced energy use and environmental impact
• Increased supply and availability of food

While research to date in this area is promising, as with any emerging field of research, ongoing studies are warranted to better understand food nanotechnology and its potential benefits, its safety in various applications, and its potential risks.

Communicating About Nanotechnology in Food

As food nanoscience research and development continues to move forward, communicators cannot lose sight of the lens through which consumers view this emerging area of technology. IFIC’s own research on perceptions of food technology found that when consumers were asked to share their knowledge of nanotechnology for food applications without being given any other information, nearly two-thirds (66%) said they had heard or read “Nothing at all” about the technology. However, when provided with a definition of nanotechnology and examples of its potential benefits for improved food safety, quality, and nutrition, half of consumers (49%) were favorable toward the technology. These results indicate that proactively communicating with consumers about nanotechnology and its potential benefits will be critical in ensuring comprehension and ultimately support for the use of nanotechnology in food.

The world will face substantial resource challenges over the next fifty years, including access to and availability of energy, water, and food.  Will nanotechnology provide solutions to these challenges?  After attending IFT, I believe that nanotechnology is one of several food technologies that will help to address these challenges.  What benefits do you expect to see from nanotechnology in the future?

Editor’s Note:  Navigating Food Nanotechnology by Kerry Robinson, RD, originally appeared on the International Food Information Council Foundation’s Food Insights blog on July 26, 2010.