Maybe you’re biting into a piece of crunchy toast right now or dipping your spoon into chocolate ice cream—those foods may not seem so delicious when you read what I’m about to share with you.
Food companies desperately want their products to look better and last longer—and to do that many are adding astonishingly tiny bits of compounds, such as titanium oxide, silicon oxide and zinc oxide, into their recipes.
These tiny bits—engineered nanoparticles—have never been eaten by humans (or any creature) until now because they existed mostly as laboratory curiosities until about 10 years ago, when scientists developed machines to manufacture them on a large scale.
To understand just how small the nanoparticles in your food really are, compare them with a typical strand of human hair—the hair is 80,000 nanometers across…a nanoparticle is less than 100 nanometers across. You can’t see them…you can’t smell them…but they are there.
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And they work. For example, engineered nanoparticles make ice cream creamier (but lower in fat)…they make flavors in salad dressing and sauces more intense…they allow ketchup to easily flow out of a glass bottle…and when sprayed on bread, they give the crust a richer color.
Now, of course I want to eat creamier ice cream and eat more flavorful sauces, but there’s something about food companies inserting microscopic bits of metal into my food—and not advertising it—that makes me more than a little uncomfortable.
To learn more about the safety of these nanoparticles and why food companies are so hush-hush about them, I spoke with Sara Brenner, MD, MPH, assistant vice president for NanoHealth Initiatives at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering (CNSE) of the University at Albany, who conducts health and safety research on nanoparticles.
Frighteningly, there are no exact figures on how many foods contain these nanoparticles, since food companies are not required to report the use of these nanomaterials in their products nor are they required to label nano-containing food products—so many in the US do not, according to Dr. Brenner. But Dr. Brenner estimates that at least 140 food and food-related products sold in the US contain nanoparticles. For the most part, Dr. Brenner said, nanoparticles are put into processed foods, such as diet shakes, dairy products, condiments, cooking oils, cakes and more, so that the processed foods can look as good and taste as good as many fresh foods.
A NEW FRONTIER
The major concern regarding use of nanoparticles is that since they’re so new, there is little to no safety data on how they affect human health. Particles this small can not only travel through the digestive tract like any food does, but theoretically could enter the body’s individual cells…including cell nuclei, DNA and other biological nanoscale entities, Dr. Brenner told me. Is that safe? The answer, she said, is “We need to investigate further.” Although there have been no negative reports about human health effects of nanoparticles, according to Dr. Brenner, a 2009 study of mice at UCLA published in Cancer Research had disturbing results. Mice were given drinking water with titanium oxide nanoparticles, and it damaged or destroyed the animals’ DNA and chromosomes. Although the food industry is eager to note that these mice were given a form and a quantity of the compound that is not typically used in human food, that is a weak argument for including nanoparticles in what humans eat. The fact is, no one knows how, exactly, scientists can and should measure the effect of nanoparticles on human health. That’s right—these things are so new, we wouldn’t even know how to measure their health impact if we wanted to. The technology used for testing foods today simply can’t be applied to anything on the nanoscale.
You would think that, because of all this, the Food and Drug Administration would not allow food companies to use nanoparticles until more research is done. But unfortunately the FDA’s stance—and I’m paraphrasing—is not “Don’t use them until they’re proven safe,” but rather “Use them and we’ll see if they hurt people.” And despite specific requests from consumer groups, the FDA has refused to even require that foods with nanoparticles be labeled as such.
I was surprised to learn that Dr. Brenner does not disagree with the FDA’s decision—in her view, banning nanoparticles from food now would be premature and could hamper the development of the many potential benefits of nanotechnology in food (such as enhancing the nutrient content in food by increasing its bioavailability or increasing its shelf life). And she thinks that within 10 years, given that there is continued investment in scientific research aimed at addressing this topic, we will know more about how safe or harmful these nanoparticles actually are.
WHAT TO PUT ON YOUR PLATE
Personally, I think 10 years is too long…I think one year is too long. Dr. Brenner said that if you’re extremely concerned about the issue, you can avoid processed foods (which you should be doing anyway), since that is where nanoparticles are most likely to be found. Or you can buy only organic products, because, she said, they are far less likely to contain nanoparticles.
You also can put pressure on food companies and the FDA, expressing the need for safety testing and labeling, through direct contact and through your Congressional representatives. I’m not against technology—but I shouldn’t be a guinea pig for the food industry and neither should you.