Photo: Steve Jurvetson (flickr)
Sub-microscopic particles, manufactured with bleeding-edge industrial technology, are already sprinkled into our food. But they don’t necessarily show up on ingredient lists, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declined to make any blanket determinations about whether nanotechnology is safe or harmful.
One of the most commonly used nano material, listed as titanium dioxide, has been reported in a range of products, including some brands of mayonnaise, doughnuts, soy or almond milk and processed cheese singles. Many of those reports are based on sources other than the manufacturers.
Recent reports about nanoparticles in food prompted a key database, Woodrow Wilson’s Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, to clarify that many of the examples cited are marked as “low confidence” because of the sources. According to the center’s database, 117 out of nearly 1,800 nano products fall under the food and beverage category.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth reports that the number of food and beverage nano products grew from 8 in 2008 to 87 in 2014. The numbers don’t always agree because there’s no clear definition. Since companies aren’t broadcasting their use of these materials, researchers can only rely on direct industry reports or by testing the products themselves.
A Hands-Off Approach
In June, the agency issued final guidelines on nanotech use in packaging, ingredients and additives. It suggested that companies consult with the FDA on any new nano products. Those guidelines are voluntary and not legally enforceable.
The majority of food-related nano products are used for cooking, packaging or dietary supplements. Tiny bits of clay, so small they can’t be seen with a microscope, make a more perfect seal around beer bottle necks. Impossibly fine silver dust embedded in plastic containers can stave off germs and spoilage. But these sub-microscopic particles could also migrate into food and drinks.
In a release, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said the agency is taking a “prudent scientific approach to assess each product on its own merits and are not making broad, general assumptions about the safety of nanotechnology products.”
It seems like a needless and potentially dangerous incorporation of nano materials into food to make ketchup pour better or slightly change the mouth feel of the ice cream you’re eating.
Sweating the Small Stuff
Food safety watchers are worried about loose oversight and rapid growth in nano food products, an issue that draws much less media attention than genetically modified food or conventional additives.
Tim Schwab, a researcher for Food and Water Watch, said nanotech is “increasingly used in the food system in a way that consumers are not at all aware of and that regulators have largely ignored.”
“It seems like a needless and potentially dangerous incorporation of nano materials into food to make ketchup pour better or slightly change the mouth feel of the ice cream you’re eating,” he said.
Evidence of widespread danger from nanotechnology is far from overwhelming, but since the technology is still developing, health research hasn’t yet been able to catch up. Still, there are plenty of warning signs about possible threats to human health. In 2009, two Chinese women died from lung disease after several months of contact with particles in a paint factory.
This year, a Cornell University study showed that nanoparticles passing through the digestive tract could end up damaging the liver. The properties of nano particles vary so widely that even the same products made by two different manufacturers are difficult to compare. This makes it extremely difficult to extrapolate possible dangers—or safety—of each new product based on past experience.
“You’d hate to think that the way this is going to be regulated is in a totally reactive manner,” Schwab said, “where we wait until there is a problem, an injury to the environment, or to human health or animal health, before regulators step up and acknowledge the problem.”
The FDA is accepting public comment on its nanotech guidelines through September 10th this year.