Nanotechnology in the food industry can take a number of forms. These include the use of nanotechnology in packaging materials, farming practices, food processing and also in the foods themselves. Nanofood as defined by the Nanoforum in their Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food document is “that nanotechnology techniques or tools are used during cultivation, production, processing, or packaging of the food.”
The use of nanotechnology in food packaging is already a commonplace reality and can be separated into two types: active packaging and smart packaging. Active packaging includes materials that constantly provide a certain feature like stopping oxygen from spoiling food. Smart packaging reacts to changes in the environment such as to indicate the presence of a pathogen.
McDonalds in the USA now use burger containers and other cardboard products that incorporate nanomaterials. These include nanoparticle starch based glues sourced from renewable resources that replace petroleum based glues. In the burger containers, nanomaterials are being used to replace polyvinyl acetate (PVA) and polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) that bond graphics to the cardboard containers.
Other packaging that uses nanotechnology include plastic beer bottles made with nanocomposite materials, plastic films that increase shelf life and antimicrobial or antifungal packaging.
Nanotechnology offers huge promises for shaping farming practices and increasing precision in farming. Fields could be embedded with nanosensors for measuring everything from nutrient levels and water content to the presence of disease, fungii or other pests. These sensors could then interact with nanoparticles or nanocapsules to deliver precisely measured quantities of pesticides and fertilizers. This would result in reduced costs and less of these chemicals being released into the environment.
Animals could be tracked, identified and monitored though embedded nanochips. The same chips could deliver measured quantities of vaccines and other treatments for disease.
Farming For Nanotechnology
An emerging field is the use of plants to directly produce raw materials for the nanotechnology industry. An example of this is “particle farming” for gold nanoparticles by growing alfalfa plants in gold rich soil. The alfalfa concentrates the gold in the plant tissues and gold nanoparticles can be harvested from the plant by mechanical separation.
Nanotechnology is already making an impact in processed foods. Nanoparticles and nanocapsules are being added to various foodstuffs to increase shelf life, alter properties, enhance nutritional values and change taste.
Tuna oil (a source of omega 3 fatty acids) in nanocapsules is being added to some types of bread. The capsules break and release the oil in the stomach so there is no unpleasant taste. In other areas nanotechnology enhanced emulsifiers are being developed to give low fat ice creams the flavour and texture of full fat ice creams.
Future of Nanofoods
At this point in time the term nanofood does not refer to foods produced directly using nanotechnology techniques. The future could bring dramatic changes in this area. Nanomachines might be able to produce foods molecule by molecule but this is many years away.
Future developments in the short term could include packaging that reflects heat to keep ice cream frozen in a hot car, self healing packaging that repairs itself when perforated and packaging that can change it’s properties under certain conditions e.g. a milk carton that changes colour if the milk has spoiled. A scientist with Kraft foods, Manuel Marquez-Sanchez, has outlined plans for a nanotechnology enabled drink, “The idea is that everyone buys the same drink, but you'll be able to decide its colour, flavour, concentration and texture”.