GMOs, meet nanoparticles. I think you two will get along famously; you really have a lot in common.
You’re both ubiquitous in consumer-packaged goods (from food to personal care) and engineered to take on new structures. Natural products consumers question your long-term health and environmental effects, advocates tout your heroic potential and most of us are at least slightly creeped out by you. Companies don't have to put either one of you on their labels, despite labeling requirements in other countries.
But here’s why GMOs should be envious of nanoparticles: The public has let the nano industry off the hook pretty easy, in my opinion. Despite many similarities between GMOs and nanoparticles, the movement to label one has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger... (we reached 1 million signatures; or was it 394? I digress) but not the other.
Outside of some niche consumer-safety groups, there is little conversation about labeling nano, and legislation remains very murky. Last June, the FDA issued a draft guidance advising manufacturers on how to use and define nanotechnology as "a first step toward providing regulatory clarity on FDA’s approach to nanotechnology." Fail. Then last week, the FDA released two sets of proposed rules for food and cosmetic companies working with nanoparticles. More on that, but first a bit about why consumers went from caring to not caring that much about nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology’s checkered past
In 2006, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report on the widespread use of nanotechnology—which manipulates particles to be between 1 and 100 nanometres (that’s really, really small). It found that nanoparticles appear in myriad personal care products and raised concerns about potential health risks because according to the FDA, "due to their small size and extremely high ratio of surface area to volume, nanotechnology materials often have chemical or physical properties that are different from those of their larger counterparts, including increased chemical and biological activity."
After this report came out, consumers looked more critically at nanoparticles, particularly nano titanium dioxide, which the sun care industry commonly uses to improve the consistency of mineral sunscreens. Vocal concerns from natural products consumers, parents especially (could their kids’ sensitive skin absorb these tiny particles?), prompted many manufacturers to reformulate products like sunscreen. That’s when brands’ labels and websites started to tout the use of non-nano ingredients.
Then, in 2009, the EWG released another statement about nanotechnology:
When we began our sunscreen investigation at the Environmental Working Group, our researchers thought we would ultimately recommend against micronized and nano-sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens .... But many months and nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies later, we find ourselves drawing a different conclusion, and recommending some sunscreens that may contain nano-sized ingredients.
Today, opinions and research are mixed on the safety of nano in food, supplements and cosmetics. The EWG’s current stance is that nanoparticles from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—the two used in minerals sunscreens—are safe in lotion but not in aerosolized form (like spray sunscreens). When inhaled, nano minerals have been linked to lung toxicity. Meanwhile, recent research from Cornell showed that some polystyrene nanoparticles, a common, FDA-approved material found in substances from food additives to vitamins, may block proper iron absorption and even change intestinal cell structure... eek.
At the same time, nanotechnology also shows promise for more bioavailable delivery of nutraceuticals and supplements, and even to create higher-performance cosmetics.
So are nanoparticles safe?
The Right to Know (about nano)
Nanoparticles come in many shapes and sizes. They can be mineral, synthetic or even natural—as some new research from University of Massachusetts is exploring. They're not “inherently” safe, according to the FDA, and up until this point, companies have used them without having adquate research. Luckily, the FDA's two proposed guidelines for food and cosmetics manufacturers using nanoparticles may help change that.
With its two sets of guidelines released last Friday, the FDA acknowledged that nanoparticles in food and food packaging may require more scrutiny because nanotechnology is still a relatively new industry. When it comes to cosmetics, which don't require premarket approval, the FDA urged manufacturers to substantiate new nano ingredients or nano-versions of existing ingredients with safety data. Though it isn't required, responsible cosmetic companies provide safety research; however, nano safety hasn't really been a big focus.
This is a solid first step from the FDA. But these are merely guidelines for the food and cosmetic industry, and with so many nano ingredients out there, it’s going to be difficult to pinpoint health risks of each without a large body of research. It will take many years, even decades, to truly understand the long-term implications of this industry.
To me, it really comes down to this: We want to know—no, we have a right to know—every ingredient that’s in our food and our cosmetics.
As I'm working on our NEXT Forecast, a collaboration between New Hope Natural Media and the Sterling-Rice Group, which highlights the companies, products and thought leaders shaping the natural products industry, this theme of transparency has emerged as what will define the future of food, cosmetics and supplements. Nano, just like GMOs, synthetic fragrances, labor practices and environmental impacts, is part of this conversation.
When it comes to nanotechnology, I commend the companies who, even in the absence of tighter legislation, are investing money in research or simply saying no to nano.
But everyone else, can't you just label it?