Are you eating nanofoods? While it might sound like the latest diet trend among anorexics, the term refers to the use of nanotechnology – particles as small as a billionth of a meter – in food. And there’s a chance that you’re already eating them.
Nanofoods fall into four categories. First, and most obviously, there’s the use of nanotechnology directly in a food that you eat. Second, there are supplements that use nanotechnology. And the last two categories, which are similar, are comprised of things you don’t eat that use nanotechnology: food packaging and cookware.
In those cases, are nanoparticles ingested or not? And in all cases, is it safe?
By and large, nanofoods are an area of mystery to all. We don’t know if it’s safe, we don’t know when and where we might be eating them, and we don’t know when the FDA will decide it’s time to regulate them.
Perhaps the best source of information on nanotechnology, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Technologies, maintains a database of consumer products around the world that use nanotechnology. For food, they list mostly supplements, plus several applications in food packaging (such as in McDonald’s burger containers or plastic beer bottles), a few uses in cookware, and hardly anything for food.
However, other sources, such as a recent AOL News piece by Andrew Schneider, point to much more common uses of nanotechnology in food.
According to Schneider’s account, an unnamed scientist at the USDA says that, “apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers and other fruit and vegetables are being coated with a thin, wax-like nanocoating to extend shelf-life. The edible nanomaterial skin will also protect the color and flavor of the fruit longer.”
He goes on to tell of “engineered particles … already being sold in salad dressings; sauces; diet beverages; and boxed cake, muffin and pancakes mixes.” And most major food manufacturers have or contract with nanotechnology labs. If that’s the case, Americans are eating nanoparticles already. But nanoparticles of what?
The name nanotechnology applies to nanoparticles of any chemical, but there is a world of difference between nanosilver, used for its antibacterial properties, and carbon nanotubes, which many fear resemble asbestos and cause similar harm. (Carbon nanotubes, thankfully, are not headed for our food; nanosilver might be, which is worrying.)
What are the risks and benefits of each type of nanoparticle, and how do we know if each one is safe?
To get an idea of how a nanoparticle may differ from larger amounts of the same element, let’s look at silver. Silver, for the most part, is non-toxic to humans. If individuals ingest too much silver, they may suffer from argyria, a condition in which their skin has a blue tint. Aside from the aesthetic problems with argyria, it’s not believed to be harmful to one’s health. Additionally, silver is highly toxic to marine organisms.
Nanosilver is highly toxic to bacteria and fungi, making it a useful ingredient in, say; food containers that help food keep for longer (The Sharper Image sells some).
In studies, nanosilver shows the potential to wreak disastrous effects on the environment. An antibacterial agent may be great for your socks or your food container, but it’s not something you want in any natural ecosystem – or even your garden!
And it comes as no surprise that nanosilver, like silver, is toxic to marine organisms. However, nanosilver is so small it can even penetrate minnow egg membranes and move into fish embryos. In humans, recent studies found nanosilver to be a neurotoxicant and toxic to human stem cells.
What does this mean for human safety if nanosilver is used in food packaging? Nobody really knows. And nanosilver is one of the most popular and most researched nanoparticles used to date. What about the others?
There are two questions at the center of the nano debate: First, is it safe? Second, does nanotechnology belong in organic foods? The EU addressed the first question, opting to go with the Precautionary Principle. In Europe, nanotech must stay out of food until it has been proven safe.
Canada merely took on the second question, saying that nanotech needs to stay out of organics. In the U.S. regulators are still looking at both questions, but–to date–have not taken action.
As a consumer, knowing that my food–even produce–might contain unlabeled nanotechnology is, in a word, terrifying.
Humans take risks every day but we like to know what those risks are, assess them, and then choose to take them. How do I know what type of risk I am taking if I eat a nanofood, and how do I opt out of taking that risk?
And for that matter, why should anyone be asked to take such a risk when no one is doing much safety testing of these new technologies?