Nanotechnology and Nano-science is the study of phenomena and materials, and the manipulation of structures, devices and systems that exist at the nanoscale, which is less than100 nanometres (nm) in size.
The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has provided this definition which lets us practically understand how small a nanoscale actually is and which also shows why nanotechnology could be important for food processing.
A nanometre is one-billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometres thick; a single gold atom is about a third of a nanometre in diameter. Dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometres are known as the nanoscale. Unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties can emerge in materials at the nanoscale. These properties may differ in important ways from the properties of bulk materials and single atoms or molecules.
Food production and processing with nanotechnology
Since properties of food at the nano level are different they could be used to advantage in the food processing industry. Food industry analysts feel that nanotechnology will be used to transform food at the atom level. Foods in the future will be designed by shaping atoms and molecules. Food wrapping will be termed ‘smart’ because it will be able to detect spoilage and the presence of harmful contaminants. By using nanotechnology future foods will be able to change their colour, flavour or nutrient content to suit the tastes and health needs of individual consumers.
Food fortification and modification
Nanotechnology researchers are working on nano-encapsulated nutrients. Nano encapsulated nutrients will be used to fortify processed food while the appearance will be boosted with nano-developed colours. Nano modification will enable the removal of fats and sugar content from processed foods. Food fortification in the future will help to increase nutritional claims about a specific processed food. Medically beneficial nano-capsules could be included in processed foods like biscuits or chips and marketed as being good for health. Nanotechnology could be used to modify foods like ice-cream and chocolate so that they have less sugar and fat content. Fats and sugars could be reduced or replaced by other substances. Nanoparticles could be used to prevent the human body from digesting or absorbing these components of the food. Somewhere in the future the Nano industry could market vitamin and fibre-fortified; fat and sugar-blocked junk food as food that promotes health and reduces weight!
Interactive smart food
Food Processing Companies have already begun to design ‘smart’ foods that interact with consumers so they can be personalised according to their choice of colour, flavour and nutrient requirements. Companies are in the process of developing a clear, tasteless drink that contains hundreds of flavours in latent nano capsules. A domestic microwave could be used to trigger the release of colour, flavour, concentration and texture that the individual chooses. ‘Smart’ foods would in the future be able to detect if an ingredient causes allergic reactions in a person and could block it. People with special dietary needs would be able to receive additional nutrients as the nanotechnology would be able to detect the need of calcium, magnesium etc. and release that into the food.
Nanotechnology will dramatically extend shelf life of processed foods with ‘smart’ packaging. A reputed company already has a patents for an invisible and edible nano wrapper that will envelope foods, to prevent gas and moisture exchange. ‘Smart’ packaging is being developed which will contain Nano-sensors and anti-microbial activators capable of detecting food spoilage. These will release nano-anti-microbes to extend food shelf life, enabling supermarkets to store foods for longer periods before sale than is possible at present. An invisible tiny chip or nano sensors could be embedded into food products to act as barcodes. These nano sensors would emit a signal that would allow food, including fresh food, to be tracked from paddock to factory to supermarket and beyond.
Food safety and nanotechnology regulations
The food market requires technologies in food processing that will provide fresh, authentic, convenient and flavourful food products so as to keep ahead in the market. Nanotechnology can be targeted to help lower costs of food additive ingredients and increase shelf life and improve freshness and quality of processed foods. With nanotechnology’s development of smart packaging you would have packaging material that would be able to repair small holes or tears, respond to environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture changes and alert the customer if the food is contaminated.
Another use of nanotechnology would be to develop analytical methods in processed foods so chemical contaminants, viruses or bacteria in food system could be detected. This will result in enhanced food safety for processed foods. Nanotechnology is the technology that could be used for future foods and would revolutionize the food processing industry. However, there would also be a need for a regulatory system to manage risks associated with nano foods and use of nanotechnology in the food processing industry to ensure food safety.