Nanotechnology is changing how we think about food. More than just an exploration of new recipes, food science includes manipulating matter at the atomic level — changing the chemical compositions and altering molecular structures.
A report by the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy says that by 2040, nanotechnology will be incorporated into every aspect of food production. Newly designed nanostructures are already being incorporated into our food and changing how food tastes, gets absorbed by the body and stays fresh. It is a process more like architecture than cooking. Here is just a small sampling of the shape of nanofoods to come:
1. Playing Legos with flavor
Ever wished the taste of delicious food would linger? Molecular gastronomy is a new area in which chefs collaborate with food scientists to make this kind of experience possible. Salvona Technologies has created nanoencapsulated flavors (like very, very tiny gel caps) that adhere to the mouth, prolonging the taste sensation.
Scientists are just beginning to unlock the secrets of taste. By creating nanoparticles that fasten onto taste receptors in the tongue, they can control how we experience individual flavors. By changing the chemical bonds that hold molecules and atoms together, tiny building blocks can be assembled in ways that make salt saltier or sweets sweeter.
Companies are also researching “on-demand foods,” whose flavors or appearance could be altered on the spot to suit the eater. Thousands of nanoparticles containing different flavors or color enhancers would be incorporated into food, but they would stay dormant unless specifically triggered. A purple velvet cake? Why not? A super spicy vindaloo? Coming right up.
2. A new kind of (nano)layer cake
Castor oil is synonymous with unhappy faces, but encapsulating fish oil into tiny nanospheres means never having to taste it again. That’s how Tip Top Bakeries in Australia adds Omega 3 fatty acid to its bread.
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are devising layer-cake-like structures in which each nanolayer contains a different nutrient, vitamin or antimicrobial agent encapsulated into thousands of tiny spheres. The individual nanosphere is designed to release when exposed to water or a change in pH level. The sheres surfaces could even hold a bioadhesive designed to attach to a specific area of the body (like the small intestine) for optimal absorption.
3. Rx repasts
A new class of foods, called nutraceuticals, are being designed to treat illnesses, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Scientists are developing new types of tiny structures, such as a matrix containing nanoparticles, that would release substances like glucose in stages. They are also developing nanofoams which form coaxial tubes to deliver medications or other needed substances directly to capillaries.
4. When food talks to your refrigerator
With nanosensors, sips of spoiled milk could become history. When embedded in food containers, the nanosensors can monitor freshness by analyzing gases emitted by food. An attached litmus strip changes color to alert the consumer. AZTI-Tecnalia, a Spanish food research company, has already developed tags that monitor the freshness of fish from ship to shopping cart.
Taking that a step further, information received by the sensors could be transmitted using tiny radiofrequency devices. While these devices are about 10 years away from actual use, they could be incorporated directly into a package structure, making them cheaper and more efficient than silicon chips. Unlike barcodes, which have to be scanned, nanosensors could transmit real-time information about food directly to the processor, grocer or even your smart refrigerator.
Nanosensors could also provide a world of information to shoppers. A consumer could tell if a pear was sweet or tart, ripe or crisp. Organic food could be scanned for pesticides. Nanosensors could also analyze DNA. People could find out if the corn or wheat in their muffin was genetically modified, or the exact contents of that package of tuna.
5. Food that glows in the dark
Researchers are also incorporating nanotechnology into food packaging as a high-tech means of keeping food fresh or alerting us when it isn’t. Kodak, for example, has developed antimicrobial nanofilms. When added to packages, these films absorb oxygen and keep food fresh. Agro Micron, a privately held biotech company, developed a spray designed to bind Salmonella or E. coli microbes to a protein surface. When bound, the proteins begin to glow. The brighter the glow, the worse the contamination.
Beer reacts badly to plastic bottles. But Miller Brewing Company uses clay nanoparticles to create shatterproof bottles that increase a beer’s shelf life by six months. Have trouble getting that last bit of ketchup out of the bottle? Researchers are developing a lining 20 nanometers thick that prevents food from sticking.
6 (bonus). No free lunch
The prospects for better, smarter foods seem dizzying, but there are reasons to be concerned about the widespread use of these small technologies. The impact of fortifying food with nanoparticles containing vitamins or other nutrients has not been thoroughly studied, nor is it regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Just like in physics, particles are different at the quantum level. Nanoparticles have an inverse relationship between size and surface. When a particle’s diameter reaches the nanoscale level, surface area increases exponentially. Dosages of medication or nutraceuticals become more complex as size decreases.
Manufactured nanomaterials released into the waste stream could pose a new range of environmental risks. It is not known if nanomaterials will accumulate along the food chain, be taken up by plants, absorbed by animals or accrete in groundwater.
Use of radio frequency information devices and other nanosensors raise privacy issues. If food purchased by the consumer is tracked, who controls the information? Environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth have mounted consumer rights and information campaigns. Friends of the Earth warns that there is a potential for nanosensors to gather and track an individual’s shopping habits, health profile, medications and genetic makeup, and this information could then be sold to advertisers.
Ultimately, much of the research on nanofoods is conducted behind closed doors at large multinational food and beverage companies, and their research, considered intellectual property, is not published or peer reviewed. At this point, any decisions about using these developments are made solely by the company and divulged at the company’s discretion, which puts consumers and regulators at a big disadvantage when it comes to developing safeguards against these tiny developments.