Monday, February 8, 2010

Nanotechnology in food : Is it safe ?

Suman Sahai

Nanoparticles used in a variety of sectors are also being used in the processing and packaging of foods. According to a study done by Friends of the Earth, foods which contain nanoscale ingredients and additives are already found on supermarket shelves in Europe and the US. Given the increasing scientific evidence demonstrating the toxicity risks of nanomaterials, this is cause for serious concern.

Firms in Germany producing processed meats like ham and sausage are using already a nanotechnology-based carrier system using 30nm (1 nanometer = 0.0000001 cm) to encapsulate ingredients such as Vitamins C and E and fatty acids, which can be used as preservatives and processing aids. This nano system is reported to increase the potency and bioavailability of the active ingredients enabling faster processing, better colour of the product and the use of cheaper ingredients without compromising on taste. Nestlé and Unilever are said to be developing a nano-emulsion based ice cream which has a rich creamy texture and flavour but is actually low fat. Low fat ice creams otherwise do not taste as good as those made from full fat milk and cream.

Nanoparticles are now being added to many foods to improve flow properties, for example, how well thick liquids pour, colour and stability during processing, or to increase shelf life. For instance, aluminum-silicates are commonly used to prevent clumping in granular or powdered processed foods, and a form of titanium dioxide is routinely used as a food whitener in confectionery, cheeses and sauces to brighten up their colour.

Bread, breakfast cereals, beverages and dairy products like yoghurt drinks, ice cream and cheese are being fortified with vitamins, minerals such as iron, magnesium or zinc, bioactive peptides, and antioxidants. Some of these active ingredients are now being added to foods either as nanoparticles or in nanocapsules to slow their release and make them available for the life of the product.

Nanocapsules in food are used to carry bioactive ingredients like vitamins, isoflavones ( compounds similar to estrogens) , carotenoids, (precursors of vitamin A), essential oils, preservatives and food colouring substances. These are to improve the taste, appearance and nutritional properties of the food. BASF has produced a Vitamin E nano-solution, especially formulated for drinks like sports beverages and flavored waters which are now very popular among the youth.

Nano-sizing or nano-encapsulating active ingredients in nutraceuticals delivers greater bioavailability, improved solubility and increased potency compared to when these substances are simply added in powdered or even micro form. Nutraceuticals are new age compounds that aim to provide nutrition and health benefits. (Nutraceuticals: nutra= nutrition + ceuticals from pharmaceuticals).

The greater potency of nanoparticle additives reduces the quantities of additives required, and so benefit food processors by cutting cost. However the high potential for cellular uptake of nanomaterials, coupled with their greater chemical reactivity, could also introduce new health risks.

Apart from nanomaterials being added to food and food packaging, nanoparticles are also created during food processing. Nanoparticles are found in many foods not because they have been added to enhance taste and appearance but because of the technology used to process the foods. Food processing technologies that produce nanoparticles are not new but the rapidly expanding consumption of highly processed foods is increasing the volume of nanoparticles in human diets, resulting in higher exposure to these particles and raising health risks.

Processing techniques which produce nanoparticles are used in the manufacture of ready to eat foods like salad dressings, chocolate syrups, sweeteners and flavoured oils. Nanoparticles and nanoscale emulsions can be formed as a result of food processing techniques like high pressure homogenisation, dry ball milling, dry jet milling and ultrasound emulsification. It is likely that many food manufacturers particularly in developing countries are unaware that their foods contain nanoparticles. They may have simply licensed a processing technology without being aware of its details and safety implications. Food manufacturers like such processing techniques because the textural changes and flow properties they produce add commercial interest to their products.

Text Box: Nano coating on food  Apples in the US come with a waxy coating to stop the fruit from losing moisture and shriveling. Now nanotechnology provides edible coatings as thin as 5nm for use in meats, cheese, fruit and vegetables, as well as confectionery and baked goods. These coatings provide a barrier to moisture and gas exchange, and can deliver colours, flavours, and antioxidants to preserve the appearance of the products even after the packaging has been opened. Edible antibacterial nano coatings have been developed, which can be applied directly to bakery goods to increase their shelf life. In addition to the accidental presence of nanoparticles resulting from processing techniques, they can also enter food as contaminants. Researches have found that many food products contain insoluble, inorganic nanoparticles and microparticles which appear to have contaminated foods unintentionally, for

example as a result of the wear and tear of food processing machines or through environmental pollution.

Before its use in food, nanotechnology has been used in food packaging and food contact materials to extend the shelf-life of packaged foods. One of the earliest commercial applications of nanotechnology in the food sector is in

packaging. It is estimated that between 400 and 500 nano packaging products are in commercial use now, and the projection is that by 2020, nanotechnology will be used in a quarter of all food packaging world wide.

The main purpose of nano material in packaging is to increase the shelf life of packed foods by reducing the rate of deterioration. This is done by using packaging materials that will reduce gas and moisture exchange with the atmosphere and minimize UV light damage. For example, DuPont has produced a nano titanium dioxide plastic additive which can reduce UV damage in foods in transparent packaging. Nano packaging can also be designed to release antimicrobials, antioxidants, enzymes, flavours and nutraceuticals to keep the packaged food tasting ‘fresh’ for a longer period.

Certain kinds of nano packaging materials are made so as to interact with the food to monitor its deterioration. Nano packaging using carbon nanotubes is being developed with the ability to ‘pump’ out oxygen and carbon dioxide that would cause food and beverages to deteriorate as well as undesirable odours that make the food unappealing.

Nano-based antimicrobial packaging

Food packaging and containers are also made incorporating antimicrobial nanomaterials, to prevent or slow down the decay of food due to microbial action. These products commonly use nanoparticles of silver but also nano zinc oxide and nano chlorine dioxide. Packaging materials using magnesium oxide, copper oxide and titanium dioxide in nano form as well as carbon nanotubes are also being developed for use in antimicrobial food packaging.

Nanoscale packaging and containers with antibacterial function

Company/ Institution


SongSing Nano Technology Co., Ltd

Cling wrap treated with nano zinc oxide

Sharper Image

Plastic storage bags treated with nano silver

BlueMoonGoods, A-DO Global, Quan Zhou Hu Zheng Nano Technology Co.,

Ltd and Sharper Image

Storage containers treated with nano silver

Daewoo, Samsung and LG

Refrigerators treated with nano silver

Baby Dream® Co., Ltd

Baby cup treated with nano silver

A-DO Global

Chopping board treated with nano silver

SongSing Nano Technology Co

Tea pot treated with nano silver

Nano Care Technology Ltd

Kitchenware treated with nano silver

Source: - Friends of the Earth, 2008


Developing countries have begun to use nanotechnology in the absence of health and safety guidelines. India along with other Asian countries like China, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam is moving ahead to commercialise nanotechnology but there is as yet no public debate on its impacts, nor a regulatory regime.

In India the government is spending over US$6 million each year on nanotechnology research but regulatory oversight remains weak. Firms are getting ready to put out water filters using nanomaterials for better absorption of contaminants but reportedly, the companies have not performed any toxicology tests because they are not required to do so.

There are outstanding concerns about what happens to nanoparticles once they are inside the body ; do they remain embedded or move freely ? they are known to be highly interactive so what are the immune or inflammatory responses they elicit ? The behavior of a nanoparticle varies according to size, shape, surface area and chemistry with the compounds it interacts with. Exhaustive safety studies are needed before nanotechnology is permitted to be used in the food and beverage sector.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Suman Sahai
The Minister for Environment and Forests, Sri Jairam Ramesh deserves congratulations for the effort he is making to hear the public’s views on Bt brinjal. The range of public concerns that are being expressed by diverse stakeholders in different parts of the country will help form the Minister’s opinion about GM crops and the regulatory system in general.

According to the legal framework on GMOs, the 1989 Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro organisms, Genetically Modified Organisms and Cells, (and subsequent amendments), the statutory authority to take decisions on the release of GMOs, rests with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is India’s apex decision making body.

In the case of Bt brinjal however, the GEAC has taken the unorthodox step of referring the matter to the government for a final decision. After declaring itself satisfied with the bio safety data on Bt brinjal and giving it clearance in principle, the GEAC has passed the ball into the government’s court. This appears to have been done because the GEAC recognizes that there is opposition to GM crops as well as a trenchant criticism of the manner in which the GEAC itself and the rest of the regulatory system conducts itself, its lack of transparency and its refusal to engage with the public’s concerns.

Gene Campaign had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in 2004, asking for an improved regulatory system incorporating among other things, technical competence, transparency and the involvement of the public in decision making. The case is dragging through the Supreme Court in its sixth year with no signs of any resolution. In the meantime GEAC has preempted everything and given clearance for the cultivation of Bt brinjal. It took this decision despite the fact that there is neither a labeling system in place, nor a law on liability in this country. If some harm were to come from the commercialization of Bt brinjal, either to farmers ( poor crops or contamination of organic crops) or to consumers who ate the vegetable, there is no law according to which the Mahyco seed company could be held responsible and made to pay compensation and recall the offending brinjal from the fields, mandis, retail shops and vendors.

In the absence of a liability law, the Mahyco company would go scot free even if its product were to inflict damage. In the absence of a labeling law , (India’s official position is for mandatory labeling), the consumers would have no way of telling whether they were eating Bt brinjal or not. The freedom of choice guaranteed by the Consumer Protection Act of India has been taken away by the GEAC with its decision to allow Bt brinjal to be commercialized before a system of labeling has been put in place.

The GEAC’s actions, taking a decision in favor of the Mahyco company, at the same time passing the buck to the government to face the public’s opprobrium, reeks not just of cowardice but also manipulation. Quite apart from this unseemly action, a statutory body cannot simply shirk its responsibilities and pass the onus onwards when it does not want to be the bad guy, yet, step in aggressively to take decisions when it thinks it can get away with it. For this reason alone, the GEAC should be disbanded and another structure set up reflecting new scientific developments in the field and principles of good governance.

However it happened, by getting involved, Sri Ramesh has taken the initiative and given himself the opportunity to do something really useful and important. He could do a great public service by forcing an overhaul of the legal framework governing GMOs in India. The Minister should set up a committee including scientists from different disciplines, legal and technical experts, as well as public interest groups. This can be anchored in the Law Ministry particularly since after an evaluation done by them some years ago, they had declared that the current Rules could not with stand a legal challenge.

The mandate of the review committee should be to improve the regulatory system on GMOs, modernize it according to the current stand of knowledge, plug the loopholes and tighten the system to make it inclusive, technically competent and transparent. This would lay the foundation of a system that would enable the development of safe and relevant technologies serving the public interest. A stringent, transparent regulatory system would not allow dubious, poorly tested products to be foisted on the public. Because of the weak and ambiguous nature of the Rules of 1989, agencies wanting the release of their products can avail of shortcuts and pliant regulators assist in this indefensible activity.

Questions of utility and safety will continue to arise till the legal framework and processes remain ad hoc and arbitrary. The following require the attention of the review committee:

  1. Improve the overall technical competence of the GEAC. The head of GEAC must be a technically competent person, not whoever happens to be posted as Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

  2. Divide GEAC into an advisory body of experts from diverse science and social science fields and a statutory body of technically trained people who will do biosafety testing along the lines recommended by the advisory body for each crop variety.

  3. Commercial release of GM crops should be held back till a proper regulatory framework with appropriate systems is in place. Research should continue.

  4. India must develop a new, stand alone Gene Technology legislation with like other countries have done. We have copied the American system of parking our regulation under the Environmental Protection Act although our situation is entirely different.

  5. A thorough Needs Assessment must constitute the first step before starting research on GM crops. Is Bt brinjal really needed? Which problem in agriculture does the transgenic crop attempt to address ? Are there alternative approaches? Has conventional breeding failed to solve the problem? GM seeds require testing, are expensive and raise safety concerns. The GM approach must be justified , not undertaken just because the Bt gene is available for licensing.

  6. If the Bt gene is to be used, its use must be selective, only where it will have a clear advantage over other approaches. Currently almost 40 % of Indian transgenic research is based on the Bt gene. Overuse of the Bt gene and the planting of Bt crops in all crop seasons will ensure faster build up of resistance in the pest and collapse of the Bt strategy of pest control.

  7. Invest adequate resources in biosafety testing and monitoring at various stages. Public sector agencies complain they get research grants for research on transgenics but not for risk assessment.

  8. Create structures to enable public participation in decision making on GMOs. Do this after a stakeholder dialogue to determine the levels and nature of public participation.

  9. The regulatory system must have an unequivocal requirement for assessing the socioeconomic impact of a new transgenic crop on traditional agricultural systems, agro biodiversity and the traditional knowledge of communities. This is required by the Biosafety Protocol.

  10. There must be an unambiguous definition of what will constitute ‘Confidential Business Information’. Barring this, all other biosafety data must be available for public scrutiny.

  11. India must invoke the Precautionary Principle ( as other countries like China, Mexico and Peru have done) and not allow transgenic version of crops for which it is a Center of Origin, most importantly for rice but also other crops like brinjal.

  12. Crops in which India has trading interests, like rice, specially basmati rice, soybean, tea, spices etc must not be genetically engineered since this will result in lost export markets.

  13. The program to genetically engineer medicinal plants must be stopped. These will be unacceptable in the international market. It is highly likely that rearranging of the genetic material could result in changes in the constitution and profile of plant metabolites that confer the healing properties.

  14. Unless the advantage of hybrid vigor can be clearly demonstrated, transgenic crops should be produced as true breeding varieties, not hybrids. This will enable farmers to save seed for planting the next crop and not being dependent on the company.

  15. The Herbicide Tolerance trait must not be permitted in India . As a chemical approach to controlling weeds, it will displace agriculture labor, especially women, who earn wages from weeding and other farm activities. Application of herbicides will destroy the surrounding biodiversity which is used by the rural poor as supplementary food, fodder and medicinal plants. It will also make it impossible to practice mixed farming.

  16. A clear protocol of mandatory biosafety tests must be prescribed crop wise for agencies producing transgenic crops, so that tests are comprehensive and standardized.

  17. A transparent and independent biosafety testing facility must be established under the supervision of scientists in the public sector to verify the data submitted by agencies developing transgenics. The same facility should be available to consumers wanting to have foods tested to confirm the presence of GM ingredients.

  18. A state of the art testing facility for food safety testing and a roster of tests that must be conducted, is urgently required. Our current food safety testing procedures are ad hoc and highly inadequate.

  19. A system of post release monitoring must be in place before permitting commercial release of GMOs. This will allow the monitoring of long term impacts of the GMO on the environment , human and animal health.

  20. Provisions must be made for labeling before any GM food is introduced in the market. This must be preceded by a public education exercise so that the label is not merely a colored sign on the package but offers the opportunity for informed choice to the consumer. Labeling to make any sense, will have to be preceded by a system for segregation, traceability and Identity Preservation of GM crops.

  21. The country must enact a law on Liability and Redress before allowing commercial release of GM foods, to put in place provisions for compensation, damage control and recall of the offending GMO.

  22. Before any approval is given to a transgenic crop, a risk –benefit analysis should be conducted with public participation.

Dr Suman Sahai has a Ph. D in genetics and has several years of research and teaching experience at the Universities of Alberta, Chicago and Heidelberg. She can be reached at and