Frequently Asked Questions

Nanotechnology and Food: Answers from IFT Experts

Q. What is nanotechnology?

A. The term nanotechnology is derived from the nanometer scale of measurement, which is equivalent to one‐billionth of a meter. There are many definitions for nanotechnology but the most commonly referenced one is that of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) ― Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers where unique phenomena enable novel applications.

Q. How did nanotechnology start?

A. Nanoscience and nanotechnology as a field of research and development is relatively new but the main concepts related to nanotechnology have developed over a long period of time. The term nanotechnology is believed to have been coined by Norio Taniguchi, a professor at Tokyo Science University, to describe the ability to manufacture highly accurate semiconductor devices at the nanometer scale. Research in the field began in individual research laboratories and later attracted the attention of governments, the private sector and non‐governmental organizations. Nanotechnology research and development in the United States is coordinated by the Federal government through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), an interagency program (http://www.nano.gov/). NNI was formed in 2001 and codified in 2003 as 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act. It is managed by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), a Cabinet‐level council (http://www.ostp.gov/cs/nstc/about). NNI began with six agencies and has grown to 26 agencies of which 15 have a research and development budget (see complete list at: http://www.nano.gov/partners). The U.S. Congress introduced a bill, the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2009 to reauthorize the NNI. The amendment strengthens federal research efforts to understand the potential environmental, health and safety risks associated with nanotechnology.

Q. Is this area of research and development adequately funded? If so, how much funding is allocated to this nanoscience?

A. Nanoscience and nanotechnology have shown exceptional ability to attract interest from governments, industries and non‐governmental entities. Billions of dollars have been invested, mostly by governments worldwide, into research to advance the field in all sectors of the economy. The level of investment varies among different countries and different sectors. For example, the majority of U.S. funding is directed toward defense and energy research. The NNI 2010 budget was $1.6 billion; and nearly $2.1 billion is proposed for 2012, reflecting a steady growth from $464 million since its inception in 2001 (http://www.nano.gov/about‐nni/what/funding). Although the majority of the funding goes to other sectors, food and agriculture research is conducted through the United States Department of Agriculture (http://www.csrees.usda.gov/nanotechnology.cfm). Many governments worldwide have similarly maintained substantial investments in nanotechnology to tap into the economic and societal promise. The private sector investments are believed to be increasing as evidenced by the increased number of patent applications.

Q. What are the nanotechnology applications relating to food?

A. Nanotechnology is not completely new in food as many nanomaterials are known to occur naturally in many foods. For example, milk is a natural source of nanosized components including casein micelles, whey proteins, lactose and fat globules. Furthermore, various conventional size‐reduction food processing techniques such as fine milling and homogenization often result in the formation of nanosized particles.

Research into novel food‐related nanomaterials and applications is on‐going in a number of areas, such as:

  • Food Packaging: nanocomposites (e.g., polymers + silicate nanoclays) for improved barrier, mechanical and thermal properties; nanosensors for detection of products of food deterioration, and smart/intelligent/active packaging properties

  • Food Quality, Safety and Defense: nanosensors for detection of pathogens, toxins, and antimicrobials (e.g., silver nanoparticles, metal oxides)

  • Food Ingredients / Delivery Systems: nanoemulsions, nanoparticles, and nanoencapsulation

  • Food Processing: membrane separation systems and fractionation systems

Although the number of potential uses is growing rapidly, most are still in basic research and/or developmental stages. True commercial applications in foods are still limited at this time. This is in part due to incomplete knowledge of the potential safety implications relative to human health and the environment. Studies are on‐going on several fronts to advance understanding of safety and risk implications. In addition, regulatory uncertainty has contributed to the slow development and adoption of nanotechnology. The current regulatory approach worldwide is "case‐by‐case," making it difficult to predict costs and the time frame from research to market for nano‐based products. There is a need for specific guidance for safety testing to aid investment and innovation and to safeguard consumers, communities, workplaces and the environment. Regulatory bodies around the world are looking into the issue through research, collaborative activities, and stewardship programs.

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