How Safe Are Nanomaterials in Your Food?

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Concerned about what’s really in your food? You have reason to be, especially because potentially harmful ingredients called nanomaterials are increasingly found in some of your favorite foods—though you may not know it. That’s because such ingredients aren’t required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be listed on food labels or otherwise disclosed by food companies.

Produced via nanotechnology—the science of manipulating materials on a scale so small that they can’t be seen with a regular microscope (one nanometer is one-millionth the length of a grain of sand)—nanomaterials do offer potential perks when used in food or in its packaging. For example, they may help make food creamier (without adding fat), intensify and improve flavor, brighten color, or keep food fresh longer.

And they’re becoming more common. There’s been a 10-fold increase in “nanofood” products available in the American market in just the last six years, according to the recent report “Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks” by Friends of Earth (FOE,), a group of environmental organizations. Whereas in 2008 the FOE identified eight food and beverage products that contained nanomaterials, in 2014 that number rose to 94.

Foods found in the report to contain nanoingredients—usually in the form of nano titanium dioxide (Ti02)—include processed and cream cheeses, cookies, doughnuts, coffee creamer, chocolate syrup and other chocolate products, pudding, mayonnaise, mashed potatoes, milk, mints, gum, popcorn, salad dressing and oils, yogurt, cereal, candy, crackers, pasta, sports drinks, and soy, almond, and rice beverages. FOE also notes that nanomaterials are likely being used to package and preserve fresh produce as well.

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An estimated 200 food companies around the world currently invest in nanotechnology, and this market for so-called  “nanofood” is expected to grow to $20.4 billion by 2020, the report notes.

Despite the increased use of nanomaterials in foods and food packaging, there are some safety concerns. According to the FDA, nanomaterials can have different chemical, physical, or biological properties than their conventionally scaled counterpart materials used in many products (including food, cosmetics, and medical products) regulated by FDA. As described in the FOE report, because nanomaterials can be more chemically active and more bioactive than larger particles of the same chemicals, they’re more likely to enter body cells, tissues, and organs. nanomaterials may also compromise immunity and have long-term pathological effects.

“Scientific research to-date suggests that exposure to at least some nanomaterials, nanodevices, or the products of nanobiotechnology is likely to result in serious harm to human health and the environment,” states the report “Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials,” which was spearheaded by the International Center for Technology Assessment and endorsed by nearly 70 groups from six continents.

This paper also says that even though the small size of nanomaterials can give them potentially useful physical, chemical, and biologically properties, the comparatively high reactivity, mobility, and other properties that come with small size can also make them toxic. In fact, a recent study published in Cell Biology found that Ti02 can adversely affect the human gastrointestinal tract.

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Furthermore, a previous report called “Slipping Through the Cracks” by the non-profit As You Sow found that few, if any, studies show that nanomaterials in food additives or packaging are safe. They also said that many peer-reviewed studies show a range of potential health harms associated with consumption of nanomaterials.

In April 2012, the FDA—one of 20 federal departments or agencies that participates in the National Nanotechnology Initiative—released draft guidance documents for the use of nanotechnology in food. It also asked for—and is currently reviewing—public comment before creating final documents. But while the FDA urges food manufacturers to consult with the organization before it brings products to the market, it is ultimately up to the manufacturers themselves to ensure the safety of their products. In other words, buyer beware if you’re concerned about nanomaterials or other undisclosed ingredients in your food.

Although we still have a lot to learn about the health implications of foods and food packages made with nanomaterials, without tight FDA regulations there’s little we can do to completely avoid them. But for now, we can hedge our bets and minimize any risks associated with consuming any one food or beverage by mixing up daily and weekly choices and emphasizing fresh, minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods. Friends of Earth also suggests avoiding highly packaged foods; buying organic food; buying directly from local farmers, butchers and bakers; and joining a food co-operative. 

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