15 Jan 2019 --- Nanotechnology and nanomaterials could offer exciting new benefits to many applications including food, according to the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST). Although there are many applications of nanotechnologies in various industries from electronics to sports goods, only a small percentage of them are currently in the food arena.
Nanotechnology is about understanding and exploiting materials at the atomic and molecular level. Materials at the nanoscale have been shown to have markedly different properties to those at the macroscale. There are very many applications using nanotechnologies including electronics, sensors, pharmaceutical and drug products, aerospace industry, home goods, building materials, sports goods and many more. To date, however, only a small percentage of applications are in the food arena, mainly concerned with food and nutritional supplements and packaging.
Professor Kathleen Groves, a member of the IFST Scientific Committee, says the main areas that could benefit from nanotechnologies are food packaging; health-linked ingredients; agricultural applications and food processing equipment.
“For example, in food packaging, they have an impact on quality and safety in that smart sensors can be used to detect spoilage of the food alerting the retailer or consumer, or inert nanoparticles can be incorporated into the packaging material to slow down deterioration. Nanotechnology can also be used in developing new rapid testing kits to help speed up the detection and analysis of bacterial contamination,” she tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“For ingredients, it has been shown that smaller particles of nutrients are absorbed faster into the body, therefore, for example, nano calcium or nano iron drinks are available to help improve the health of consumers needing these supplements in their diet,” Groves continues. “Additionally, encapsulation of insoluble bioactives at the nanoscale could allow them to be used in aqueous products without compromising the quality,” she notes.
In agriculture, potential benefits include increased absorption of insecticides if used in nano form. This allows a lower dosage of insecticide to be used as it is more effective in action, says Groves.
“For food processing potentially nanocoatings on equipment could reduce the need for cleaning and downtime and nanosensors could be used to detect certain food changes during processing allowing more automatic control. These are not currently in use but are examples of potential applications,” Groves notes.
In other non-food applications, the use of nanotechnologies has allowed smaller faster devices for medical or industrial use, with new scanners or improved filtration or water purification as examples. It is to be expected that innovations in non-food areas will feed down to the food industry as appropriate to allow improvements in many areas.
“In foods, nanostructures are present naturally as well as being formed during the manufacturing process, including the emulsion of fat in water, in milk and the formation of protein interfaces in foams and emulsions. Understanding how the structure of food ingredients relates to sensory properties, and how the processing produces them will allow innovative healthier products lower in fat, salt and sugar to be produced as well as new developments in product development and processing,” Groves explains.
It is difficult to predict what will develop in 2019, “but there could be great benefits from nanotechnology,” she says.
“It is also important that changes to any foods or processes are considered carefully as they must be safe and deliver high quality,” she comments. “Consumer research carried out by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that consumers were happy with innovation and nanotechnologies if they received a benefit from their use.”
As nanotechnology and nanoscience are believed to benefit agriculture, food packaging, food supplements and food processing, IFST recently updated its Information Statements which summarizes the authoritative and impartial science behind key food science issues.
The new Information Statement assesses the potential applications and public concerns as well as outlines the safety, risk and food regulations in this area, according to IFST. The content of the IFST Information Statement defines and explains, nanoscience and nanotechnology, assessing the potential applications and public concerns, their use in food, and outlining the safety, risk and food regulations in this area.
The main food application areas considered to benefit from nanotechnology potentially are:
• Food packaging
• Food supplements
• Food processing
Examples already using nanotechnology include smart or intelligent packaging, which can slow down product deterioration, or alert consumers or retailers, when the product is not safe or of good quality. “Nano” forms of nutrients or vitamins act much faster in the body than conventional forms, so nano-calcium or iron fortification is available, usually in a beverage-style format. Using the same principle, nano-pesticides or nutrients can be used in agricultural applications to benefit crops.
All foods contain nanostructures which are developed naturally or as part of the processing. Examples of these include powdered ingredients, part of which will be in the nanoparticle size range, interfacial membranes and material stabilizing foams and emulsions. Controlling these structures allows improvements in product properties, says IFST.
Groves also notes that synthetic or “cultured” meat (which is not strictly nanotechnology but is an innovation involving small structures) is becoming more developed. Last week, FoodIngredientsFirst reported on the new era of cultured meat production, that is well and truly underway. The clean meat revolution represents a seismic technological shift for humanity, with strong potential sustainability messages.
“IFST will continue to evaluate developments in nanotechnology, the science behind it and the impact on food and the industry,” Groves concludes.
By Elizabeth Green
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