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?

  • Stone

    I appreciate the author’s concerns, though I think the article misses a much larger question. First, I would focus instead on applications of various nanotechnologies in agrifood production systems, and I would argue that perhaps a more useful dichotomy would be to then think of whether those applications occur in (a) the food production process and/or (b) the food product itself. This moves us toward discussion of the emerging roles — and possibly labeling — of nanotechnologies in any consumable item, food or otherwise. For example, would a loaf of bread containing no (detectable) engineered nanoparticles be considered ‘nanofood’ if it was produced with wheat grown in fields utilizing nano-engineered fertilizers and pesticides, or processed in facilities employing nano-sensors (or, ironically for that matter if it were certified as ‘nano-free’ using ultra-sensitive nano-enabled detection and testing systems)? The same potentially significant environmental and human health and safety (EHS) uncertainties identified in this article would no doubt apply to the use of nano in producing this loaf of bread. For example, this may reduce use of conventional fertilizers/pesticides while introducing new uncertainties regarding the EHS risks of nano in food production. This distinction between a product vs process standard for nano in food would, I suspect, be a fair consideration for many people who view their food purcchases as supporting specific production systems. The same may be said for applications of nano in pathogenic detection systems for food safety/public health, but again not embedded in a specific product. So I would encourage thinking of food in terms of production systems (including but extending well beyond the products themselves) and locating applications of nano (or any) technologies within those systems.

  • Larzipan Speedwreck

    Two issues with your article:
    1) You use vague references to scientific studies to provide your article with a veneer of empiricism. The ultimate effect is to convey to the reader that nanotechnology in food is bad for human and environmental health, regardless of the context and use. This is a poor stand-in for what I hoped would be a rational, trenchant critique of the benefits and risks of food applications of nanotechnology.
    2) Your invocation of the precautionary principle as a silver bullet for consumer and environmental protection is a canard. The precautionary principle implies that action in the absence of evidence is justified in order to avoid possible harm. However, the lack of action also carries with it the possibility for harm. In practice, the precautionary principle is self-defeating and meaningless when it comes to formulating policies that actually protect human and environmental health. Sounds good on paper, but doesn’t actually work in the real world. For example, if we reactively throw food-based applications of nanosilver out the window on the basis of the precautionary principle, isn’t there also a risk of injury or death from, for example, microbial food poisoning that could’ve been prevented by the use of nanosilver?
    Let’s put some concrete data and risk assessments behind calls to ban nanotechnology in food (or in any other context). To be sure, you are correct that more data needs to be generated in this area. However, pulling the precautionary card is a great way to stir consumer anxieties before the verdict has truly been rendered, which ultimately dis-incentivizes support for research into the risks and benefits of nanotechnology in food.
    But perhaps that’s your goal.

  • Carmen

    1. If you are so concerned about nanotechnologies…
    you should also be concerned about the use of the drug Ractopamine to promote animals production of leaner meat.
    (Ractopamine is a drug marked, “Not for use in humans. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask” become “safe” in human food? With no washout period).
    2. What about the fact that all processed meats contain nitrites, a known carcinogen.
    3. Since 2004 foods are packed with carbon monoxide with the only purpose to keep meat looking “fresh”. It could be rotten, but it will look fresh.
    4. Pigs and chicken are aldo fed arsenic with their feed to make them grow faster.
    5. Ground meat content:
    -beef trimming that are half fat
    -any pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the carcass
    -The final product gets treated with Ammonia to kill Ecoli (which it doesn’t)
    6. Soy is processed with Hexane, an air pollutan and neurotoxin. Since they do not let the product ferment to produce tofu and they use Hexane for production, we get the soy natural toxins plus the toxins from the Hexane… I just don’t eat tofu…

  • dangermaus

    This is just one of many technologies to make the industrial way by which we grow and obtain our food slightly more efficient, and slightly cheaper that may or may not have unintended effects on human health and things in the environment. Another example is irradiation, which leaves the product often fresh produce (at least) with fewer vitamins.
    While there is nothing INHERENTLY wrong with any one of these things, what the hell are we doing it all for? To make it possible to sell the product for say, 8% less? Our values about food are completely out of whack. We all seem to insist on buying the cheapest-priced items on the shelf, yet we all see the statistics saying 25% or more of all food produced rots in shipping or in our refrigerators and is never eaten at all! This reflects the fact that we’re not ACTUALLY interested in the real cost of our food.

  • Doc Mudd

    So, it appears nanotechnology is being groomed as the next alarmist food-panic-du-jour. Be afraid, be very afraid!
    Another instance of misunderstood technology reflexively freaked out over, pumped hard for distortion into yet another populist boogieman. Panic, panic, scream and shout. Panic, panic, run about!
    We’ve been safely reducing particle size of foods and preservatives ever since invention of the mortal and pestle. But, now we’ve magically crossed some imaginary threshold of taboo human progress, eh? Damn, I get tired of scientifically illiterate food phobes ‘informing’ me how we’re all gonna die.
    I carefully avoid taking nutrition & health advice from frightened anorexics, orthorexics or hypochondriacs. Geez, everyone thinks they’re a damned doctor.

  • Anon

    As a side note: I find your reference to anorexia unnecessary and offensive.