Food packaging and monitoring are a major focus of food industry-related nanotech research and development. Packaging that incorporates nanomaterials can be “smart,” which means that it can respond to environmental conditions, repair itself or alert a consumer to contamination and the presence of pathogens. According to industry analysts, the global smart packaging market reached $33.19 billion in 2017 and is expected to increase by $42.75 billion in 2023. This implies a total growth rate forecast of 4.13 percent over a five-year period between 2018 and 2023.
Using Clay Nanoparticles to Improve Plastic Packaging for Food Products
The development of nanoparticles revealed their potential in the field of packaging. Nanoparticles, including nanoclays, were found to be especially useful in improved, intelligent, or smart packaging. In recent years, researchers found and recommended the use of nanoclay in the improvement of plastic packaging—due to its low cost, availability, and simple processability. On top of this, it was also found that nanoclays had high protein absorption potential, making them a useful tool as an enzyme carrier.
How Creating a Molecular Barrier by Embedding Nanocrystals in Plastic Can Improve Packaging
Many years ago, the packaging industry’s quest to package beer in plastic bottles for cheaper transport was unsuccessful because of spoilage and problems in flavor. Nowadays, however, companies are able to do this by producing nanocomposites for use in plastic beer bottles that provide the brew a six-month shelf-life. By embedding nanocrystals in plastic, researchers have created a molecular barrier that helps prevent the escape of oxygen. With nanocrystals found to make plastic up to 3,000 times stronger, researchers are now looking into more expansive applications of the particle.
Using Nanotechnology Methods to Develop Antimicrobial Packaging and ‘Active Packaging’
Recent studies have shown a wide array of antimicrobial packaging applications for nanotechnologies. As bacteria becomes more resistant to antibiotics, scientists and researchers are looking to improve product quality through the use of nanocapsules integrated with different polymers, ultimately producing plastic films that have low susceptibility to bacteria. While there is a promise in the use of nanotechnology in developing antimicrobial packaging, some researchers believe that the relatively new approach is still an “untapped” resource.
Embedded Sensors in Food Packaging and ‘Electronic Tongue’ Technology
Scientists from various institutions are working on nanoparticle films in order to produce packaging with embedded sensors that will detect food pathogens. Called “electronic tongue” technology, the sensors can detect substances in parts per trillion and would trigger a color change in the packaging to alert the consumer if a food has become contaminated or if it has begun to spoil.
Using a Nanotech Bioswitch in ‘Release on Command’ Food Packaging
Researchers in the Netherlands are going one step further to develop intelligent packaging that will release a preservative if the food within begins to spoil. This “release on command” preservative packaging is operated by means of a bioswitch developed through nanotechnology.
Using Food Packaging Sensors in Defense and Security Applications
Developing small sensors to detect food-borne pathogens will not just extend the reach of industrial agriculture and large-scale food processing. In the view of the US military, it’s a national security priority. With present technologies, testing for microbial food-contamination takes two to seven days and the sensors that have been developed to date are too big to be transported easily. Several groups of researchers in the US have developed biosensors that can detect pathogens quickly and easily, implying that these “super sensors” would play a crucial role in the event of a terrorist attack on the food supply. Meanwhile, with USDA and National Science Foundation funding, researchers at Purdue University have been able to produce a hand-held sensor capable of detecting a specific bacteria instantaneously from any sample.
Problems in Industrial Food Production that Sensors and ‘Smart Packaging’ Will Not Address
While devices capable of detecting food-borne pathogens could be useful in monitoring the food supply, sensors and ‘smart packaging’ will not address the root problems inherent in industrial food production that result in contaminated foods; faster meat (dis)assembly lines, increased mechanization, a shrinking labor force of low-wage workers, fewer inspectors, the lack of corporate and government accountability, and the great distances between food producers, processors, and consumers. Just as it has become the consumer’s responsibility to ensure meat has been cooked long enough to kill pathogens, consumers are also expected to act as their own “inspectors” so that the industry can continue to trim safety overhead costs and increase profits.
This article was updated on 29th April, 2019.