Nanofoods - Coming to a plate near you?
By Honor Mahony
Chocolate that does not make you fat. Drinks designed by the press of a button. 'Meat' made from plant protein. Burgers that give you all the vitamins you need.
Welcome to the world of nanofoods, a bold new future where, as industry would have it, food will become smart and personalised and worries about its nutritional impact a thing of the past.
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That is the theory. Then there is the practice. The practice is that Europeans are conservative when it comes to what is put on their plates. They are prepared for it to be processed and want to eat as cheaply as possible but too much active tinkering with it is, so far, a cultural taboo.
"There is a lot of people working in the area. But a lot of companies are rather reluctant to launch new products because they are very concerned about the societal reaction," says Lynn Frewer, Professor of Food and Society at Newcastle University.
Genetically modified foods are a case in point. The majority of Europeans remain implacably imposed to GM foods. And this hostility - despite the passage of time - has not been diluted.
The result is a food industry that is both feverishly excited and remarkably silent about a nano-food future.
What they are trying to do is develop a product seen as so irresistibly beneficial by the public that consumers are prepared to make the leap they did not make with GM foods.
Processed food firm Kraft famously assaulted the public conscious too precipitously when in the mid 2000s it spoke of the possibility of designing a clear and tasteless drink containing hundreds of nano-capsules.
The idea was that the consumer could choose the colour, flavour and nutrients in their drink once they arrived home. The blue strawberry flavoured vitamin D-enhanced concoction - for example - would be triggered by a microwave transmitter.
Such thinking proved too much to stomach - even if figuratively - and industry has stopped being so open about it. But work on nanofoods has not stopped.
One consulting firm reckoned the global nanotech food market reached $20.4 billion last year. EU money is funding a project called Nanolyse on detecting and characterising engineered nanoparticles in food.
And in early October food industry representatives and scientists gathered in Brussels for their fourth annual meeting to discuss progress in the area.
What is it?
Nanotechnology is about manipulating structures at the nanometre scale. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nm thick. For further minute clarification, around three hundred million nanoparticles, 100 nanometres wide each, can fit on a pin's head.
Scientists have long studied atoms and molecules but the arrival of powerful microscopes in the 1980s opened the possibility of altering their structure.
In terms of eating, this means foods can be altered on the nano scale to lower their fat, sugar or salt content while retaining the full taste - the chocolate or mayonnaise that does not enhance your waist no matter how much you eat.
It works because at nano size, a grain of salt, for example, would have a much greater surface area, allowing a smaller amount to be used to get the same taste.
Nano-encapsulation could deliver vitamins straight to where they are needed without most of their benefits being lost on the way. Allergy-raising matters could be removed from foods, allowing lactose intolerant people to drink milk.
It also opens huge possibilities in terms of packaging. Food could in the future come with packaging that indicates when the optimal day to eat a product is or when a product is likely to go off. Nano particles could make it look and smell better, and increase its shelf-life.
Utensils for preparing food would be affected too. Surfaces could be altered to have an anti-bacterial effect or made easier to clean.
Way down the road, engineered nano particles, could cut out the need for farms at all - that lab-produced ‘meat’ mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, eating out at restaurants could take on a surreal experience as chefs design meals for maximum effect - flavours would only be released after a certain amount of chewing.
Consumer goods giant Unilever told a 2009 UK House of Lords enquiry into nanofoods that it was using nanoscience to gain a "better understanding of the structure of food in order to affect its functionality, composition, appearance, texture and taste."
But despite the pressure from industry to advance into this area, there remain many worrying unknowns concerning the potential side effects, particularly of engineered nanoparticles. (Many foods have naturally occurring nanostructures).
Broadly, scientists are unsure how to detect nanoparticles in food - food properties change after consumption; what effect nanoparticles have on the environment and the body; and what the short and long term effects of exposure to insoluble and indigestible nanoparticles.
The size of nanoparticles means they could travel to unintended places, crossing membranes to enter heart, lungs, kidneys or even brain. Cells could be irreversibly damaged. Long-term build up of nanoparticles could be harmful to the body.
Nanomaterials have the potential to "access all areas of the body, even the brain and all areas of the cell, including even the nucleus. It is this ... property that probably makes very small nanoparticles most worrisome to scientists" the MRC Collaborative Centre for Human Nutrition Research said in evidence given to the Lord’s enquiry.
Aside from the possibly hazardous side effects, nanofoods also raises ethical questions.
NGOs regularly counter the argument that nanofoods could help feed the world’s poor by saying that people are starving not because there is insufficient food but because they do not have access to it.
Similarly, healthy food campaigners worry that hamburgers and other fastfoods could be marketed as healthy after being infused with vitamins and minerals.
"Will nanotechnology as a whole result, for example, in greater consumption of highly processed food and less consumption of fruit and vegetables?" asks Georgia Miller of Friends of the Earth.
And then there is the question of whether experts Europeans will ever embrace nanofoods. Experts believe it is touch and go.
Consumers’ reaction is likely to be influenced by several factors such as whether any risk is reversible and whether they have any control over it.
Kathy Groves, a scientist a Leatherhead Food Research in the UK, and participating in the October conference in Brussels, points out that as a consumer one chooses to buy flatscreen TVs and smartphones which use nanotechnology but "food is different, because you have to eat. We need to be able to trust the food made by others."
Researcher David Groves, from the Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, suggests there are four possible future scenarios, ranging from a well managed introduction of nanofoods with a lot of public awareness to outright rejection by the public. This last could be the result of scare in a related industry, such as weapons built with nanotechnology.
Transparency is seen as key. If consumers know what the food industry is up to, they are unlikely to let their imaginations run towards 'Frankenstein foods'. Industry on the other hand pleads the right to secrecy in order to maintain the competitive edge.
At the moment all of this is not an issue - there are no nanofood products for sale in the EU and none at the application stage with the European Food Safety Authority.
But it may become a topic in the not too distant future. Michael Knowles, in charge of regulatory affairs at beverage giant Coca Cola, reckons drinks with nanoencapsulated vitamins will be the first products onto the supermarket shelves.
"I think that one of the likely frontrunners is going to be a product that has nano encapsulated vitamins and or minerals. Because this is where consumers are well aware of having the benefits of fortified foods," he said following the October conference.