Every now and then something reminds me about food nanotechnology, the use of molecular size nanoparticles to whiten or improve the safety or shelf life of processed foods (see previous posts on the topic).
What brought this on is a recent report from Australia that sounds all too familiar. Friends of the Earth commissioned tests and found “nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica in 14 popular products, including Mars’ M&Ms, Woolworths white sauce and Praise salad dressing.”
Australian regulators, however, have denied that nanoparticles are in use “because no company had applied for approval.”
Last year, Friends of the Earth did the same in America. Its report, “Tiny Ingredients Big Risks,” documents nanomaterials in more than 90 food products, among them Jet Puffed Marshmallows, Trix Cereal and Nestle Original Coffee Creamer.
Nanoparticles are really small (10-9 meters, or one millionth of a millimeter). How they work and what they might do to the human body is greatly in need of research.
Catching up on food nanotechology
The FDA’s guidance to industry—nonbinding and, in my opinion, not particularly helpful—says nanoparticles are safe in foods but that companies using them should let the FDA know about it.
It is prudent practice for you to do so, particularly when the manufacturing process change involves emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology. The consequences (to consumers and to the food industry) of broadly distributing a food substance that is later recognized to present a safety concern have the potential to be significant.
The FDA does not categorically judge all products containing nanomaterials or otherwise involving application of nanotechnology as intrinsically benign or harmful. Rather, for nanotechnology-derived and conventionally-manufactured food products alike, FDA considers the characteristics of the finished product and the safety of its intended use.
Are they really safe? Nobody knows, leaving much room for unease, as Twilight Greenaway pointed out in Grist in 2012. Her Grist colleague Tom Philpott wrote about this question even earlier—in 2010: “The strategy seems to be: release into the food supply en masse first; assess risks later (if ever).”
This is not reassuring
Web MD suggests that “while researchers are still sorting it out, avoid heavily processed foods, and read labels if you’re concerned.”
Good advice, and another reason to avoid heavily processed foods.
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley.
She is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism and What to Eat.
Her most recent book is Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, published by University of California Press in 2008.
You can read her Food Politics blog here:
Latest posts by Dr. Marion Nestle (see all)
- So what exactly IS “natural?” - January 17, 2016
- FDA approves genetically modified salmon, and it won’t be labeled - November 27, 2015
- University of Colorado returns Coca-Cola cash! - November 16, 2015