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A closer look at future foods

Nanotechnology has the potential to modify food in beneficial ways, but has also met with some harsh criticism.


The Appliance and Kitchen Gadgets blog strives to be about more than just what new tools you can buy. We were struck by Steve Boggan's recent article for the Guardian, which reminds us that new food technology can affect us, even if we don't want it to.

A new word popping up all over the place is nanotechnology. There is nanotechnology research into all sorts of things, including pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, military intelligence and weaponry, and now, even food. But as Boggan explains in his article, this is a revolution that has met simultaneously with generous praise and severe criticism.

This is not surprising, considering the potential fruits of this technology: scientists are boasting that using nanotech in foods could completely change the way we think about food. Using nanotechnology, foods like burgers and ice cream could be changed on the atomic level to taste just as good without the fat or the calories. Boggan's article also mentions how nanotech might provide protection against allergic reactions. He writes, "If you are allergic to peanuts, perhaps you'd like to fix your food so that any nut traces pass harmlessly through your body."

Many so-called "nano-futurists" predict a future where nanomachines in food will supply farmers with information about each plant in a crop, shoppers with information about the ripeness of a fruit, and crops with pest-specific smart pesticides.

Predictably, criticism of the use of nanotechnology in food is based on safety concerns. According to the article, fooling with food can be tricky because consumers are wary of products that are genetically or chemically modified. Boggan cites an example of a Kraft Foods product, described as "a tasteless, odorless drink that might contain dozens of flavors, colors and nutrients in billions of microcapsules that could be activated--possibly by microwave--at home. You might turn it into a strawberry-flavored drink, while I might opt for lemon and lime." Since consumer opposition of GM (genetically modified) foods began, research in these areas has been swept under the rug to avoid scaring potential customers away.

Nanotechnology does have the potential to do a great deal of good. The article mentions applying it in places like Africa, where the problem isn't always that food isn't available, but that the shelf life is short, nutrients aren't stabilized, and children aren't getting enough nutrition. However, scientists who study nanomaterials are wary of putting them in food, partly because they're just not sure about all of the risks. Since they are so much smaller than their larger cousins (one human hair is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter), nanoparticles sometimes act in ways that are unpredictable, and can travel easily to anywhere in the body. The research and safety assessments are apparently lagging behind the forward movement into nanofoods, which to many is a worrisome prospect. According to an article (which the Boggan article sited) conducted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, "Neither industry nor government appears to be doing its homework. Products could end up in the market without a proper assessment of risk or end up indefinitely halted at the threshold of commercialization." Does this ring a bell to anyone else? Aspartame, perhaps?

Like it or not, as companies shrink down to nano-scale proportions, the nanofood industry keeps getting bigger. While the jury's out on whether or not nanofoods are safe, or if they will end up in our future food, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that before we start eating them, we understand what they can do to our bodies and the environment. How you feel about them is up to you. But before you formulate an opinion, you should educate yourself about nanofoods, and a good way to start is by reading Steve Boggan's article.