Nanotechnology in Food

If you ever have wondered where nanotechnology will take us, look no further than the potential applications in the area of functional food by engineering biological molecules toward functions very different from those they have in nature, opening up a whole new area of research and development. Of course, there seems to be no limit to what food technologists are prepared to do to our food and nanotechnology will give them a whole new set of tools to go to new extremes. For a more critical view of food nanotechnology, just take a look at "Nanotechnology food coming to a fridge near you" or "Are you ready for your nano-engineered wine?".
But there are also a lot of positives. Let's take a look at the potentially beneficial effects nanotechnology-enabled innovations could have on our foods and, subsequently, on our health.
Generally, nanotechnology is being used in food and agriculture to enhance food safety, improve crop yields, and develop new food products with improved nutritional and functional properties. Some of the ways nanotechnology is being used in food and agriculture include:
Food packaging: Nanotechnology is used to develop food packaging materials that can extend the shelf life of food products by blocking the transfer of oxygen, moisture, and other gases that can cause spoilage.
Food safety: Nanoscale sensors and imaging techniques are used to detect food contaminants and pathogens, enabling rapid and effective food safety screening.
Crop improvement: Nanotechnology is used to develop new crop breeding methods and to enhance plant growth and disease resistance.
Food fortification: Nanotechnology is used to develop food fortification methods that can deliver essential nutrients to food products in a more efficient and controlled manner.
New food products: Nanotechnology is used to develop new food products with improved nutritional and functional properties, such as functional foods and dietary supplements.
Overall, the use of nanotechnology in food and agriculture is aimed at improving the quality, safety, and sustainability of food products and supporting sustainable agriculture.
Researchers have even printed edible nanostructured holograms on food. Beyond aesthetics, holograms on food – specifically, edible holograms – could be used to reduce packaging needs, for example, as information about nutritional content or labels could be printed directly onto the food item.
According to a definition in a report by the European Nanotechnology Gateway ("Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food"; pdf), food is nanofood when nanoparticles, nanotechnology techniques or tools are used during cultivation, production, processing, or packaging of the food. It does not mean atomically modified food or food produced by nanomachines.

Where is nanotechnology used in the food sector?

Here is an overview of what nanotechnology applications are currently being researched, tested and in some cases already applied in food technology:
Nanotechnology in food
Examples for nanotechnology in food applications (Source: Nanowerk)
Let's start with where the benefits of this will be needed most: third world countries where food supply is often limited and the quality of available food leads to nutritional deficiencies and the quality of drinking water ia a major contributor to disease.
In a study by the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics ("Nanotechnology and the Developing World"), a panel of international experts ranked the 10 nanotechnology applications in R&D worldwide with the greatest potential to aid the poor. Number two on the list was "agricultural productivity enhancement", number three was "water treatment and remediation" and number six was "food processing and storage" (read more: Nanotechnology in developing countries).
Researchers have begun to address the potential applications of nanotechnology for functional foods and nutraceuticals by applying the new concepts and engineering approaches involved in nanomaterials to target the delivery of bioactive compounds and micronutrients. Nanomaterials allow better encapsulation and release efficiency of the active food ingredients compared to traditional encapsulating agents, and the development of nano-emulsions, liposomes, micelles, biopolymer complexes and cubosomes have led to improved properties for bioactive compounds protection, controlled delivery systems, food matrix integration, and masking undesired flavors.
Nanotechnology also has the potential to improve food processes that use enzymes to confer nutrition and health benefits. For example, enzymes are often added to food to hydrolyze anti-nutritive components and hence increase the bio-availability of essential nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. To make these enzymes highly active, longlived and cost-effective, nanomaterials can be used to provide superior enzyme-support systems due to their large surface-to-volume ratios compared to traditional macroscale support materials.

Examples of food nanotechnology

A paper in Trends in Food Science & Technology provides a summary of the kind of applications industry and universities are working on ("Food applications of nanotechnologies: An overview of opportunities and challenges for developing countries"):
Processed nanostructured or -textured food (e.g. less use of fat and emulsifiers, better taste A number of nanostructured food ingredients and additives understood to be in the R&D pipeline; eg. mayonnaise
Nanocarrier systems for delivery of nutrients and supplements in the form of liposomes or biopolymer-based nanoencapsulated substances A number are commercially available in some countries and over the internet
Organic nanosized additives for food, supplements and animal feed Materials range from colors, preservatives, flavorings to supplements and antimicrobials
Inorganic nanosized additives for food, health food, and animal feed A range of inorganic additives (silver, iron, silica, titanium dioxide, selenium, platinum, calcium, magnesium) is available for supplements, nutraceuticals, and food and feed applications
Food packaging applications eg. plastic polymers containing or coated with nanomaterials for improved mechanical or functional properties (see for instance: "Food packaging takes over the role of quality control") This area makes up the largest share of the current/short-term market for nanotech applications in the food sector (e.g. plastic polymers with nanoclay as gas barrier; nanosilver and nanozinc oxide for antimicrobial action; nanotitanium nitride for strength)
Nanocoatings on food contact surfaces for barrier or antimicrobial properties A number of nanomaterial-based coatings are available for food preparation surfaces and for coating food preparation machinery
Surface-functionalized nanomaterials Main uses are currently in food packaging; possible uses emerging in animal feed
Nanosized agrochemicals R&D stage
Nanosensors for food labelling (see: "Edible optical nanotechnology sensor for food packaging") R&D stage
Water decontamination Nano iron is already available in industrial-scale quantities. A number of companies thought to be using the technology in developing countries
Animal feed applications Nanosized additives specifically developed or are under development for feed include nanomaterials that can bind and remove toxins or pathogens
Take a look at our Nanowerk Spotlight for an overview of the latest nanotechnology advances for agriculture.

Nanotechnology and food safety

Given the increasing number of nanotechnology applications in the food industry, the ability to detect and to measure a given nanomaterial at key time points in the food lifecycle is critical for estimating the nanoscale properties of interest that dictate manufacturing consistency and safety, as well as understanding potential beneficial or adverse effects from food intercalation. Read more in our Nanowerk Spotlight: "How to identify nanomaterials in food".
It should be noted that nanoparticles are already naturally present in food, given that many food and feed ingredients are comprised of endogenous proteins, carbohydrates and fats with sizes extending from large biopolymers (macromolecules) down to the nanoscale. Nanotechnology applications in food production must therefore be viewed in the context of this background exposure to natural nanoparticles in the diet. The critical issue is whether synthetic nanoparticles and other nanomaterials can potentially cause any harm.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published a guidance ("Guidance on the human and animal risk assessment of the application of nanoscience and nanotechnologies in agri/food/feed") on how to assess the safety of nanoscience and nanotechnology applications, focusing on the safety assessment for human and animal health. The guidance gives practical suggestions on the types of testing that are needed and the methods that can be applied.
One critical aspect in this area is nanotechnology for the detection of foodborne pathogens. Nanotechnology offers the opportunity for alternative sensor platforms for the rapid, sensitive, reliable and simple isolation and detection of E. coli and other pathogens. Nanotechnology enabled detection techniques include detections by luminescence using quantum dots; localized surface plasmon resonance of metallic nanoparticles; enhanced fluorescence; dye immobilized nanoparticles; or Raman reporter molecule immobilized metallic nanoparticles.
Check out this study that reviews the potential of nanotechnology specifically for boosting food safety by using the case of Ghana (How can nanotechnology transform food safety worldwide?).
"Where will nanotechnology take us?" is another, more general question, addressed in our book.
For a more general discussion on where nanotechnology is being used today see our introduction section.