Nanotechnology, often touted to be the next big thing, is also sometimes portrayed as potentially dangerous. Nanotechnology offers the food industry a new and powerful way to take apart and reconstruct nature at the molecular and even atomic levels.
Nanotech is often misconceived as a single technology. Encompassing a collection of methods and tools, it allows manufacturing with unparalleled precision and efficiency at a size where properties change phenomenally because of an entirely different governing realm of physics — quantum physics. 'Nano' implies fundamentally different physical, biological and chemical properties — drastically different from that of the bulk counterparts.
The very characteristics that promise exciting new possibilities also create unique and unpredictable risks for human health and the environment. Nanotechnology can be utilized to help feed the increasing world population, improve the quality and safety of foods, deliver much needed nutrients to individual consumers in an efficient manner, and even help combat obesity. That nanoparticles — even those made of common materials — are prone to behaving in strange and unexpected ways, however, poses a problem. They can transgress the body's natural protective barriers, including cell walls and the blood-brain barrier, to end up in places where they have never gone before … and there's no telling what that can do.
Even ubiquitous and safe substances when nanosized change their behaviour and exhibit unpredictable reactivity. The resulting complexity is enigmatic to even the most imaginative scientists. It is difficult to vouch for the safety of such a beast without understanding the risks and establishing clearly when, where and how they might happen, and developing a way to prevent or mitigate them.
A done deal
Like it or not, nanotechnology has already entered our food system. We have all been exposed to nanomaterials in our foods because some of them exist in nature and others have inadvertently — and in many cases, by design — entered our food systems. The discomfort is with those deliberately engineered because we still know nano about nano.
Genomics and recent understanding of how food structure at the nanoscale impacts food functionality is inspiring unprecedented innovation in the realm of functional ingredients. Nano-encapsulated nutrients and nano-enabled delivery may help enhance nutritional value and precisely alter functionality. An increasing body of scientific evidence, however, suggests that nanoparticle behaviour in biological systems is not a mere extrapolation of the behaviour of their micro- or macroscale counterparts. This has prompted public-action groups to rightly raise questions about the potential impact of nanoparticles and nanomaterials, not only on consumer health and safety but also their impact on workers and the environment.
Contemporary law, regulation and policy have not kept up with the pace at which nanotechnology-enabled products are developing and penetrating food systems. Some nations and some governing bodies have opted to ban nanotechnology from foods. Unintended consequences of genetically modified crops, irradiated foods and food technologies guide their stance. Other nations and some organics certifiers are expected to follow suit. Nanotechnology may, it appears inadvertently and rather ironically, create another promising health and wellness marketing niche — nanotech free.
So … what to do?
Does one also serve if one stands and waits?
Doing nothing can amount to criminal irresponsibility especially given the rate at which nanomaterials are entering our food system. It is also unconscionable to step away from nanotechnology (and its value to mankind) simply because of its complexity. Oversight needs to be strengthened not only to assess its risks but also to ensure realization of its benefits.
The gaps in our imagination and in our knowledge are not at par with the rapid pace in which nano is evolving and any steps taken now will likely have to be modified in the future.
However, that does not mean we should not act. It means simply that any actions we take should be flexible enough to incorporate new knowledge. A daunting challenge for certain. Nevertheless, it is one that can be met.
Kantha Shelke, PhD, is a reformed scientist, expediting market realisation of new-product and technology development in food and nutrition, and is co-founder and principal at Corvus Blue in Chicago.
Disclaimer: Kantha Shelke is not employed by any aspect of the nanotechnology industry.