NEW ORLEANS — More than 15,000 food scientists, chefs, recipe developers and purveyors of spices, flavorings and additives met here last week to examine the newest innovations in the cook’s pot and on grocery shelves.


Nanoparticles, which could revolutionize steps all along the path from the farm to the table, were discussed openly and with passion in many of the scientific sessions of the Institute of Food Technologists annual conference.


But in the huge exhibition hall, among the thousand of displays of the newest advancements in the food industry, nano was rarely being promoted as the exciting science it may well be. Its absence was perplexing.

Food Safety News patrolled the sprawling Food Expo questioning likely users of the new technology. The enthusiastic company sales reps and scientists saw the “press” tags affixed to our convention passes and suddenly had very little to say. It was akin to not talking about the crazy aunt at the family reunion.


There were few signs among the elaborate displays that even mentioned nanotechnology. One exception was the exhibit for Southwest Research Institute, which runs 2 million square feet of laboratories in San Antonio, Texas.


“There are many areas where nanomaterial can be of an immense benefit to food development, processing, safety monitoring and packaging,” James Oxley, senior research scientist in nanomaterials for Southwest Research Institute, told Food Safety News.

Many exhibitors are actively developing exciting applications for nano particles, but they’re just not talking about it, he explained.

“The ongoing concern about possible health hazards or adverse reactions from nanomaterial has people staying pretty quiet about what they’re doing,” Oxley said.

“If the FDA provides a clearer picture of what it will and won’t accept in food and packaging, the use of nanomaterial holds great promise for a wide variety of food-related applications.”

A week before the world’s top food scientists gathered for this conference, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance that it says outlines the agency’s view on whether products it regulates involve the application of nanotechnology.

They invite public comment on the draft guidance horribly named: “Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology.” The agency says “it represents the first step toward providing regulatory clarity on the FDA’s approach to nanotechnology.”

“Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that has the potential to be used in a broad array of FDA-regulated medical products, foods, and cosmetics,” said Carlos Peña, director of FDA’s emerging technology programs. “FDA is monitoring the technology to assure such use is beneficial.”

Meanwhile, on the same day that FDA made its nano announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency said that it will seek to determine whether nanomaterials in pesticide products can “cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and human health.”

There is enormous industry pressure on the government to move more rapidly on approving the use of nanomaterial. Many safety regulators and much of the public health community fear that there has been insufficient testing of the health hazards from exposure to nanomaterial.

An executive order signed by President Obama on Jan. 18. pretty much illustrates the quandary presented to all players in this enormously growing world of nanoparticles.

“Our regulatory system must protect public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation. It must be based on the best available science.”


What are we talking about?

Nano is derived from the Greek word for dwarf, which really tells us very little, so try this: a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, a nanoparticle is tens of thousands times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.


The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies — a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts — maintains a Consumer Products Inventory that offers the best-educated guess available on the commercialization of nanomaterial. PEN’s latest tally says there are currently 1,317 products, produced by 587 companies in 30 countries, containing nanomaterial.

Other than some cooking oil and chocolate flavoring, most of the products so far are not food but food-related, and involve food storage or preparation — items such as cutting boards. But those who compile the list say it is far from comprehensive.


The food industry is no different than the rest of the commercial world and thus is using in-house scientists or contracting with outside experts to see what these manmade, subatomic structures can do to enhance what they make and sell.


The scientific presentations and many of the hundreds of posters on new research findings made it clear that some companies are devoting many R&D dollars to using nano to make food seed more bug-resistant, enhance protection against pathogens, monitor spoilage or aid in traceability with food-packaging sensors or bolster flavoring and increase shelf life.

Some are already testing engineered nanoparticles to reduce bacterial growth, maintain the freshness and longevity of baked goods; keep meat juicer; eliminate disagreeable, but benign odors and reduce the amount of sugar and salt in recipes.

The rush to regulate

Regulating the use of nanoparticles, especially in food, has become an international quagmire.


“There is actually no specific definition for nanomaterials that’s widely accepted although several countries have published their own definition,” Bernadene Magnuson, Senior Scientific and Regulatory Consultant for Cantox Health Sciences, told Food Safety News.


In a session on food law and regulation, Magnuson explained to other scientists that food safety agencies in North America and overseas may require additional safety evaluations of nanomaterials with certain characteristics. 

“These include nano particles that have the likelihood to persist and bio accumulate either in the humans or in the environment; those with a high level of either chemical or biological reactivity; a complex form or structure; and/or those with the ability to undergo a complex transformation,” explained the international expert, who is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, College of Medicine, University of Toronto.

“For oversight and regulation, however, the critical issue is whether and how such new or altered properties and phenomena emerging at the nanoscale create or alter the risks and benefits of a specific application.”

She said that safety studies will still need to be done to demonstrate lack of any potential health or environmental issues. The White House apparently agrees with her.

“Nanomaterials should not be deemed or identified as intrinsically benign or harmful in the absence of supporting scientific evidence, and r
egulatory action should
be based on such scientific evidence,” the White House said earlier this month, in a lengthy update on nano policy to the heads of all agencies, including the FDA and USDA, on the oversight of all applications of nanomaterial.

Risk assessment

The use of nanotechnology in medicine and electronics, aircraft and vehicles, has been science-fiction-like and often borders on the unbelievable.


Naturally occurring nanoparticles — completely harmless — exist in many foods and spices, even chocolate, beer and dairy products. Toxicologists and other risk assessors worry that if there are devastating hazards, they may exist with the manmade or engineered nanostructures, where atom-sized or smaller chemical structures are constructed molecule-by-molecule into something with commercial value.

The U.S. safety agencies — FDA, USDA, EPA, CDC and NIOSH — have been besieged by industry, which wants nanoparticles to be immediately approved as safe because some of the chemicals — silver, titanium dioxide, copper — have been used more or less safely for decades.


But health and safety regulators are far from convinced that these same metals and chemicals reduced to nano-scale are perfectly safe, especially when it comes to inhalation or consumption.

There have been significant peer-reviewed studies by both academic and government investigators which have shown that many nano particles are small enough to penetrate the skin, lungs and pass through the all-important blood-brain barrier.


Inhalation of carbon nanotubes — which are one of the main building blocks of many nano products and packaging — has been shown to cause cancer, much like asbestos does. However, the particles can penetrate the lungs more deeply than asbestos and appear to cause often-fatal damage more rapidly in test animals.


Nano-titanium dioxide, which is used as a whitening agent in many food and cosmetic products, has been proven to cause disease in test animals that have been exposed to high doses. One study at UCLA repeatedly showed damage or destruction of the animals’ DNA and chromosomes.


Judging by the number of fresh graduates and young scientists presenting their research during days of IFT poster sessions, it’s obvious that the use of nanomaterials will have an important place in the world of food science.


Photos: Above, James Oxley; lower, Bernadene Magnuson.  

  • Doc Mudd

    “Food Safety News patrolled the sprawling Food Expo questioning likely users of the new technology. The enthusiastic company sales reps and scientists saw the “press” tags affixed to our convention passes and suddenly had very little to say. It was akin to not talking about the crazy aunt at the family reunion.”
    More like a wise discretion to avoid becoming the target of irrational “crazy aunt” neo-Luddite activists who live for pitching unseemly tantrums to resist whatever they don’t understand…and that covers a lot of ground with most of these ignorant activist fools.
    We’ve benefited from reducing particle size of foods and medicines since the invention of the mortar & pestle. Geez, the evolution of teeth is in response to the obvious benefits of reducing particle size of our food.
    But now a small infantry of daft “crazy aunts” will draw yet another one of their squirrely lines in the sand and gleefully ramp up their their well-choreographed hystrionics.
    OK get in line everyone. On the count of one we will all move back and to the left; that’s back and to the left. Then we will all recite the Precautionary Principle Prayer as we wring our hands over human progress.
    Be afraid, be very afraid!

  • dangermaus

    At first glance, that mortar-and-pestle analogy before might make some sense, but it’s simply invalid. Obviously, the reason that these nano-scale particles are useful in new ways is ONLY because they’ve been made small enough (for the first time) that their chemical properties* are different. Food comes from living tissues. If, when reduced to nano-scale particles, the properties of a substance is different react to the food differently, it’s AT LEAST plausible, if not likely, that they would also be processed in a human body differently.
    Silver is a good example… You could eat little beads of pure silver without any problems, but a small amount of nano-silver are lethal because it is absorbed and distributed differently around the body once it gets inside your digestive tract (which is why it’s not a food additive). I’m not claiming to be an expert on the topic, but your assertion that there’s nothing to be concerned about is just stupid.
    It’s hard to imagine someone could be so consistently wrong, and consistently wrong in ways that always supports the interests of big agriculture and our industrial food paradigm. Maybe Harry’s suggestion about you (that you’re a shill for someone/thing) might is right, but that’s almost certainly giving you too much credit – I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hire you after seeing the kinds of stuff you write.
    *Please don’t make me (or better yet, one of the far more qualified chemists that post on this site) give you a lesson about how covalent bonding isn’t all there is to Chemistry, particularly Biochemistry.

  • sleuther

    Shills only need to possess certain PR and disinformation skills to disrupt and skew any serious inquiry or debate. And Listserve lunatics and other flacks have long seemed to find ample employment from the “Institutes” (Hudson, Heartland, etc) as well as Big Ag lobby groups and PR firms (United Fresh, Monsanto, etc).
    Wrongness seemingly isn’t a concern, as all they’re supposed to do is make a little noise and seed a little doubt — and their employment is secure as long as they are able to keep sidetracking the debate — and don’t blow their cover.
    However, it is so transparent — inanity is inanity — and repeated often enough the shill’s credibility goes down the drain and they just become a parody of their own mud-slinging persona — and every word they write has just the opposite effect their handlers have intended.

  • Doc Mudd

    Heh, heh, heh…and Edison (hoarding all his inventive eggs in the ‘direct current’ basket) couldn’t “imagine” Tesla’s alternating current was not only safe, but the very future of electricity technology. Was it ignorance, fear, political gamesmanship, greed, Luddism that caused Edison’s legendary insolent intellectual blind spot?
    Oh well, dangermaus, no need for you to electrocute an elephant over particle size – we get it that you nurture deep neo-Luddite convictions in some situations. You are in good company, I’m sure…there were probably some folks who trembled when fire was first brought into the cave, cussed and swore it was a fad that would never catch on. And don’t even get me started on the wheel, indoor plumbing, internal combustion engines, the telephone, microcomputer chips…
    Back and to the left, campers; back and to the left! We will repeat this patented maneuver until we arrive safely back in the fiefdom!
    * don’t hesitate to “give me a lesson” in the precautionary principle and the dogma of chemistry according to dangermaus. I could always use another good hearty laugh today. Could you somehow use backyard chicken farming examples to illustrate your more salient points of technophobia, chemosynthesis and molecular dynamics? You know, for the simple-minded among us – we can stay focused and grasp the concept of chickens, probably. Thanks.

  • JustTheFacts

    There’s many reasons why nanotech-utilizing companies don’t want to make their use of the technology public — the hazardous effects are completely under-researched, unregulated and potentially very dangerous.
    Here’s a more concise AOL News report on key findings from the investigative reporter who wrote this FSN article, Andrew Schneider:
    The Nanotech Gamble: AOL News’ Key Findings 3/24/2010
    And that is followed by a Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study questioning the safety of nanotechnology in crops from 6/1/11 Science Daily.
    March 24) — Along with two Pulitzer Prizes, senior public health correspondent Andrew Schneider’s decades of groundbreaking investigative reporting have earned him countless sources. When a number of those sources began bringing up nanotechnology — and not in the laudatory language that usually accompanies the topic — this project was born.
    Schneider, whose reporting accomplishments include being first to reveal the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Mont., ultimately spent 15 months delving into nanotech. He interviewed more than 450 scientists, safety advocates and government officials in the U.S. and seven foreign countries. He pored over what he estimates were 15,000 pages of reports and studies.
    “The Nanotech Gamble” is the result of that effort. But in a way, it too is just a beginning, as Schneider will continue to dig into this evolving story. Subsequent reports will rest on the key findings from this series, which include the following:
    Once confined to cutting-edge labs, nanotechnology has an increasingly pervasive place in everyday life — the National Science Foundation, for instance, estimates that up to $70 billion of nano-containing items are sold in the U.S. each year. But at the same time, a growing body of research is showing that nanomaterials pose significant and potentially fatal health risks, including lung, heart and brain damage, cancer and birth defects. And as Schneider documents, the federal government as a whole is doing little about this emerging threat.
    The nanomaterial most widely used in consumer products is nano-titanium dioxide. It’s an ingredient in a number of drugstore items rubbed onto bodies and faces and put into mouths, among them cosmetics, sunblock and toothpaste. A UCLA study found that ingesting nanotechnology can damage and destroy DNA and chromosomes to a degree that can be linked to “all the big killers of man,” as one of the scientists there told Schneider.
    Carbon nanotubes are the most commonly used nanomaterial in industrial applications. Research shows that they can penetrate the lungs more deeply than asbestos and appear to cause asbestos-like, often-fatal lung damage more quickly, thanks to their tiny size.
    The Food and Drug Administration, which does not regulate cosmetics or nutritional supplements containing nano-titanium dioxide, says no nano-containing food is sold in this country. But some of the agency’s own risk assessors say that’s not true, pointing to growing evidence that the particles are already showing up on grocer’s shelves in a number of products.
    Schneider also found a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who has first-hand knowledge of Latin American food packers that dip U.S.-bound produce in a nanocoating to increase its shelf life. “We found no indication that the nanocoating, which is manufactured in Asia, has ever been tested for health effects,” the researcher says.
    The Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to impose some controls on the use of carbon nanotubes and mandate that any company that uses nanomaterials disclose that practice. But industry interests have pushed back and have so far successfully stymied the implementation of those safeguards.
    Though the Obama administration argues that it has increased the federal government’s investment in nanotech safety efforts, the 2011 budget shows a continued and striking disparitybetween funding for nanotech development and risk assessment. Just $117 million, or 6.6 percent, of the $18 billion allotted for nanotech overall is for safety-related initiatives.
    Experts Schneider spoke with expressed alarm at Washington’s collective indifference to the potential hazards nanotech presents. These experts fear a repeat of a pattern that played out with breakthroughs such as asbestos, DDT and PCBs, in which government authorities, wary of getting in the way of innovation, ignored the warning signs until a full-blown public health problem was at hand. “How long should the public have to wait before the government takes protective action?” asks one. “Must the bodies stack up first?”
    Safety of Nanoparticles in Food Crops Is Still Unclear
    ScienceDaily (June 1, 2011) — With the curtain about to rise on a much-anticipated new era of “nanoagriculture” — using nanotechnology to boost the productivity of plants for food, fuel, and other uses — scientists are reporting a huge gap in knowledge about the effects of nanoparticles on corn, tomatoes, rice and other food crops.
    Their article appears in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
    Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, a co-investigator for the NSF/EPA University of California Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, and colleagues at The University of Texas at El Paso, note that nanoparticles, which are 1/50,000th the width of a human hair, are used in products ranging from medicines to cosmetics. The particles also could end up in the environment, settling in the soil, especially as fertilizers, growth enhancers and other nanoagricultural products hit the market. Some plants can take-up and accumulate nanoparticles. But it is unclear whether this poses a problem for plants or for the animals (like humans) that eat them. So, the researchers sorted through the scientific literature looking for evidence to settle the safety question.
    In the article, the scientists analyzed nearly 100 scientific articles on the effects of different types of nanoparticles on edible plants. They found that the uptake and build-up of nanoparticles varies, and these factors largely depend on the type of plant and the size and chemical composition of the nanoparticles. “This literature review has confirmed that knowledge on plant toxicity of [nanomaterials] is at the foundation stage,” the article states, noting that the emerging field of nanoecotoxicology is starting to tackle this topic.
    Journal Reference:
    Cyren M. Rico, Sanghamitra Majumdar, Maria Duarte-Gardea, Jose R. Peralta-Videa, Jorge L. Gardea-Torresdey.Interaction of Nanoparticles with Edible Plants and Their Possible Implications in the Food Chain. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2011; 59 (8): 3485 DOI:10.1021/jf104517j

  • Doc Mudd

    Ahh, so Schneider is a platoon leader in the “crazy aunts infantry”!
    Line the old girls up and whip them into a frenzy, Andrew.
    Professional scaremongering is such fun, isn’t it? And rewarding, in a sick, twisted sort of fashion. Heh, wasn’t someone whining about “shills” in one or two of the earlier comments? Oh, that’s ‘different’ in Schneider’s case, eh?

  • dangermaus

    Yeah, Mudd, and the people with asbestos-linked mesothelioma are faking it.
    The problems jtfacts mentions (like toxicity and cancer after prolonged exposure) occur at tiny-tiny ppm/ppb concentrations… Once these products find a proven value, and gain acceptance they’ll be produced by multiple manufacturers the hundreds of tons, and the ones that are designed to hamper the microbes that break down organic matter(aka, the ones with the most obvious uses for industrial agriculture) will stay around for much longer than our lifetimes.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think nanotechnology will eventually find its way into every facet of manufacturing, computing, and uncountable other places. It’ll allow people to construct materials that are, say lighter and harder than the hardest alloys in existence, and/or have miraculous super-conductive properties, they’ll help eliminate the problem of scarcity of rare earth elements needed for electronics and industrial magnets. Obviously no food manufacturer is going to put something that’s obviously poisonous into food that they sell to consumers. However, putting this stuff in our food also means that we’ll be putting it in our landfills, soil, and groundwater, and we don’t have a good idea of what that stuff is going to look like 30 or 50 years from now…
    Can’t we learn the lesson we learned from DDT, CHCs, PCBs and the like?

  • Doc Mudd

    Determined to electrocute that elephant, aren’t you.