And yet, nanotechnology has the potential to transform the future of the food industry. While experts and consumers alike remain skeptical, there is no denying the far-reaching potential of nanotechnology and the seemingly endless progress that the technology can bring.
Nanotechnology concerns the study of and manipulation of materials at atomic and molecular scales. Nanomaterials are engineered particles 80,000 times smaller than a human hair. Nanotechnology takes advantage of that fact that many materials have different properties at a small scale than they do at a larger scale. Hence, scientists can shape food on a molecular level, producing materials with tailor-made physical and chemical properties.
Nanotechnology could provide much needed improvements in food quality and safety. Nanomaterials with enhanced properties that better protect food from external effects could be incorporated into packaging. It would be possible to create packaging that could adjust its properties to changing environments, such as a change in light, pressure, temperature, etc. Anti-microbial and self cleaning packaging also is possible, along with nanotechnology-based anti-counterfeiting devices.
Recent large-scale problems with contaminated spinach, lettuce and pet food have highlighted the seriousness of food safety. Nanotechnology could help tackle these life-threatening issues. Nanosensors can be affordably built right into packaging, offering pathogen and contaminant detection within minutes of exposure. This would include potentially deadly pathogens such as E. coli and Listeria. Researchers also are working on sensors that change color when food has spoiled, eliminating the need for 'use by' dates on packaging.
The list of potential benefits goes on. Scientists have proposed the idea of putting nutrients inside nanosized capsules in order to prevent the nutrients from breaking down before they have a chance to enter the body. In this way, foods can be fortified with nutrients that can be released into the body at designated times.
Experts and researchers alike warn that the industry must be careful not to jump ahead of itself in the field of nanotechnology. Despite billions of dollars spent in research, much is still unknown. There is evidence that certain types of nanotech materials might even be harmful because of their ability to persist in the human body and the environment. In the race to be the first to unveil life changing innovations, manufactures need absolute proof that there are no health risks associated with nanoparticles.
There is much work yet to be done, but nanofood just might be an appetizing option for the 21st century.
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