What are Nanoparticles and Why are They in Our Food?

Perhaps you have heard about nanoparticles in food products. They are basically metals broken into very, very tiny particles that are measured in billionths of a meter, called nanometers.  Nanoparticles are used in food for several reasons: to keep food fresh for longer periods, to color and thicken processed food, or to add nutrients. Nanoparticles in food are not required by U.S. law to contain labels. In other words, food and beverage manufacturers can put them into their products without disclosing their existence to consumers.

What’s the big fuss about nanoparticles in food and beverages? A 2012 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) draft of proposed regulations for nanoparticles in food mentioned several concerns. The draft warned that “so-called nano-engineered food substances can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts.” Furthermore, the FDA draft stated that “particle size, surface area, aggregation/agglomeration, or shape may impact absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) and potentially the safety of the nano-engineered food substance.”

Read more about nanotechnology

Nanoparticles are in increasing use in the American market. A recent analysis by Friends of the Earth (FOE) found that there has been a 10-fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanoparticles in food on the American market over the last six years. In 2008, FOE found eight food and beverage products with nano-ingredients on the market, but today there are 87. Since no labeling is required, there are probably many more food and beverage products with nanomaterials.

The use of nanotechnology in food and beverages is expected to continue to increase. Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and nanopackaging. About 200 transnational food companies are investing in nanotechnology. The nanofoods market is expected to grow to $20.4 billion by 2020.

Products made by major companies that contain nanoparticles includeKraft, General Mills, Hershey, Nestle, Mars, Unilever, Smucker’s and Albertsons, according to the FOE analysis. There are specific foods listed as containing nanoparticles, including:

  • processed and cream cheeses
  • cookies
  • doughnuts
  • coffee creamer
  • chocolate syrup and other chocolate products
  • pudding
  • mayonnaise
  • mashed potatoes 
  • milk
  • soy, almond, and rice beverages
    The FOE is concerned about nanoparticles causing health problems. Their small size gives them greater access to our bodies, so they are more likely than larger particles to enter cells, tissues and organs. They can compromise our immune system response, and

    may have long term pathological effects. For example, health experts are concerned that the widespread use of nanosilver in consumer products will worsen the problem of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

    Read more about superbugs

    The FOE recommends that there be a moratorium on further commercial release of food products, food packaging, food contact materials and agrochemicals that contain manufactured nanomaterials until safety and labeling laws are established. Until the government establishes laws to better regulate nanomaterials, there are ways we can protect ourselves. One of the key ways to protect ourselves is by avoiding nanofoods, and that means not eating highly processed foods. Instead, eat more fresh food, and particularly organic certified food. And by buying organic food you are supporting sustainable farming.

    Image: sylvar

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    By Andrea Donsky| March 18, 2015
    Categories:  Eat

    About the Author

    Andrea Donsky

    Andrea Donsky

    Founder & Chief Passionista at NaturallySavvy.com. See my full bio here.

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