Nanotechnology involves the design and manipulation of materials on molecular scales. Companies using nanotechnology say it can enhance the flavor or nutritional effectiveness of food. Food produced by using nanotechnology is quietly coming onto the market, and consumer groups want U.S. authorities to force manufacturers to identify them.
U.S. health officials generally do not place warning labels on products unless there are clear, known reasons for caution or concern. But consumer advocates say uncertainty over health consequences alone is sufficient cause to justify identifying nano-foods.
As many of you know from the stories on my site, I'm a huge fan of technology. I believe nanotechnology is an area that has the potential to generate health benefits that can change your life dramatically, for the better.
That said, I also see that the potential for misuse (whether from plain ignorance or indifference fueled by financial greed) is equally great. Let’s remember we are developing materials that have never been seen on the face of the planet before and we are clueless as to what their future impact on healthy may ultimately be.
Serious health problems can occur anytime you introduce substances into your body that were never meant to be there. Those substances can be man-made nanomachines, common processed foods, artificial food ingredients, or “natural” sugars and grains that people consume every day.
But nanotech food ingredients that directly impact and alter your body’s natural mode of operation, such as the ability to taste certain flavors, is a questionable benefit at best, that can end up having unusual and unforeseen consequences.
What is Nanotechnology, and Who Ensures its Safety?
The word "nanotechnology" has become very popular and is used loosely to describe many types of research where the characteristic dimensions are less than about 1,000 nanometers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is part of a government-wide National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which provides coordination and direction for this quickly developing field. Based on the NNI criteria, something is only referred to as nanotechnology if it involves all of the following:
- Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels, in the length scale of approximately 1 - 100 nanometers,
- Creating and using structures, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small and/or intermediate sizes, and
- Ability to be controlled or manipulated on the atomic scale
The use of nanotechnology has quietly crept into many different areas that can affect your health, including lip gloss, canola oil, food storage containers and sunscreens, just to name a few.
So far, the EPA does precious little to regulate the use and safety of nanotechnology. According to a recent article by NanoWerk.com, six months after launching its voluntary nanotechnology reporting program, the EPA still keeps a closed lid on the information received, raising serious doubts about the viability of the program and the EPA’s ability to protect citizens, consumers, workers and the environment from detrimental side effects of this technology.
The Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP), launched on January 28th 2008, is intended to improve public trust by providing both the EPA and the public with a better understanding of exactly what nanomaterials are being produced, how they’re being used, and what is known about their interaction with nature and the physical body. However, the reverse is currently taking place, as a mere fraction of nanomaterial producers have coughed up their information to the voluntary program base, and what little is available is not being openly disclosed by the EPA to the public.
In 2005, some 600 companies were known to manufacture and apply nanotechnology -- and that number has surely grown since then -- yet a mere 20 companies have reported nanotech involvement as of yet, which now includes a total of 90 nanoscale materials.
The British equivalent is the Voluntary Reporting Scheme for Engineered Nanoscale Materials by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which launched in September 2006. DEFRA’s last report states their database now includes a scant 11 submissions.
Just like the U.S. vaccine adverse event reporting system (VAERS), which is voluntary and hence only includes about 1 percent of all adverse vaccine events, it’s highly unlikely you will be able to make any clear assessments about safety based on information from these voluntary reporting systems.
Improving Flavor and Nutritional Effectiveness of Food With Nanotechnology
Despite the fact that polls indicate 53 percent of Americans would not buy genetically modified foods, 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is processed foods, most of which contain GM ingredients. This is an indication of just how little people in general know about genetically engineered foods.
Now we’re looking the emergence of 3 to 4 products containing nanotechnology each and every week. Most of these products are consumer goods like lightweight tennis rackets and bulletproof vests, but The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), has identified three foods, so far, that definitely contain nanotechnology:
- Canola Active Oil
- Nanoceuticals Slim Shake Chocolate
The canola oil, by Shemen Industries of Israel, contains a nanosized additive called "nanodrops" designed to carry vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals through your digestive system, while the Slim Shake (by RBC Life Sciences Inc.) uses cocoa-infused "NanoClusters" to enhance the taste and health benefits of the cocoa without the need for extra sugar.
But there’s little doubt that you may be eating nano-engineered foods already, if you’re consuming processed foods.
A chemical that tricks you into "tasting" sugar or salt when it is not really there is likely already on the market. This allows the product to claim it has “Less sugar” or “Less Salt,” while still tasting the same.
Senomyx, the biotechnology company behind this particular food additive, has already developed several chemicals that, although they contain no flavor of their own, activate or block taste receptors in your mouth. The chemicals can mimic or enhance the taste of sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate (MSG), for example.
But don’t bother looking for them on your labels. None of these chemical compounds need to be listed by law. Instead, they're included with a general ingredient category already on most processed food labels, namely "artificial flavors."
Flavor Chemicals Able to Bypass FDA Approval Process
These flavor-altering compounds are used in small amounts (less than one part per million), which means companies like Senomyx do not have to go through the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval process typically necessary to release food additives. Instead of the lengthy FDA process, the compound only has to be classified as "generally recognized as safe" by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association -- a process that can take as little as 18 months, with a mere 3 months of safety testing on rats.
Consumer groups and food safety experts have pointed out that while a chemical’s ability to reduce salt, sugar and MSG in foods could be beneficial, one three-month safety study is not enough to guarantee safety.
Kraft Foods, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup have paid Senomyx a total of $30 million for research and development and have contracted for exclusive rights to use the flavorings in products like Kool-Aid, reduced salt soup varieties and various beverages.
A main concern here, in my mind at least, is this:
Many of these compounds, like those produced by Senomyx, are formulated using many of the same research techniques that biotechnology companies apply in creating new drugs – and we all know how well that works. There are few, if any, completely safe pharmaceutical drugs on the market that carry zero negative side effects.
I don't know about you, but I'd like to stick with my own taste buds as a guide to determine what something tastes like. Something about eating a chemical that blocks or enhances taste receptors in the mouth is unsettling, even if it has been granted the "generally recognized as safe" status.
Yet Another Reason to Return to Whole Foods
Since most of these nano-compounds are lumped in as "artificial flavors," you won't know you’re ingesting them -- unless you stick with unprocessed foods.
So if you want healthy soup, for example, the best way to ensure that it's healthy is not to rely on Campbell's to reduce the salt in theirs--it's to make it yourself using real ingredients that you pick out personally. Cooking your own foods does take planning and a little more time, but the nutrient quality, purity and taste that you'll get from your own home cooking are vastly superior to any store-bought variety.