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Nanotechnology in Food: Emerging Issues and Potential Uses

Center for the Global Food Value Chain Blog

What is nanotechnology? What comes to mind when you think about nanotechnology? As a food manufacturer would you be willing to use nanotechnology to make your food? The potential benefits of using nanotechnology are vast and far-reaching, but potential issues and unknowns still remain. 

Nanotechnology was defined by Congress as “the science and technology that will enable one to understand, measure, manipulate, and manufacture at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels, aimed at creating materials, devices, and systems with fundamentally new molecular organization, properties, and functions.1” Definitions for nanotechnology vary greatly, and the biggest variance deals with the size range. The National Nanotechnology Initiative2 has claimed the size range for nanomaterials to be 1-100 nm. While the lower limit of 1 nm is widely accepted, the upper limit varies greatly based on whom you ask.

Nanotechnology is being widely employed in several different industries, predominately in the medical product industry (including cosmetics such as sunscreen) as well as material science/engineering for manufacturing stronger, more durable materials. For its part, the use of nanotechnology in the food industry has been gaining momentum in the past 10 years. A few potential uses that are under development revolve around food processing, packaging, and safety, and include the following: antimicrobial packaging, improved food storage for longer shelf-life, enhanced nutrient delivery, more appealing texture and flavor, and even using nanoparticles to inform a consumer if the food product is contaminated or has spoiled3. However, while more potential uses of nanotechnology appear, the actual science behind understanding nanoparticles and their safety profiles has made little progress, resulting in unknown safety issues and large gaps in knowledge in underlying risk assessments. This has dampened the enthusiasm around the use of nanotechnology in food products (as well as drugs, devices, and vaccines).

Widespread use and implementation of products utilizing nanotechnology face several headwinds. The three biggest hurdles in widespread adoption of nanotechnology are: 1) Understanding (and mitigating) the unknown risks through science, 2) Public perception and appealing to their needs and desires while suppressing their fears, and 3) Regulatory agencies’ need assurance of the safety before approval. Out of these three, understanding the science is the important factor.

Until science can prove that the use of this emerging technology is safe and effective with minimal risk, the public and the regulatory agencies may be reluctant to change their attitudes. The general public tends to be overly cautious of the unknown, and this cautious attitude is only hyped by worst-case horror stories, fiction novels, and naysayers who tout the potential negative implications (regardless of how far-fetched or far-reaching) without giving a chance to the potential positive implications. In this case, the bad outweighs the good. And, proof with science is needed to change these viewpoints. 

Christie Gray
Manager, Food Safety
Deloitte & Touche LLP

1 Sandoval, B. (2009), Perspectives on FDA's Regulation of Nanotechnology: Emerging Challenges and Potential Solutions. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 8: 375–393. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00088.x; 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, Pub. L. 108–153, §10, 117 Stat. 1923 (codified at 15 U.S.C. §7509 [2003]).
3 Duncan, T.V. Applications of nanotechnology in food packaging and food safety: Barrier materials, antimicrobials and sensors. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science. Volume 363, Issue 1, 2011, 1-24.



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