Food is not the first field that comes to mind when looking for opportunities to apply the results of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Most people like their food natural and do not want too much technology to be involved. Yet, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the food industry, society and, more importantly, the individual consumer can benefit from applications of nanotechnology.
When we study food materials under a microscope it is clear that foodstuff usually has a structural hierarchy that ranges from the macro level, where we enjoy our foods, via intermediate levels to the micro and nanolevels.
It is important to realize that virtually all food products are made up of nanostructures. It is therefore logical that, when you want to improve certain properties of a food product, you often have to consider what is happening at the nanolevel.
With the advent of nanotechnology, new tools have become available and food researchers now have the means to really understand the processes that take place at the molecular and supramolecular levels and to modify them.
The food industry is eager to use the newly acquired possibilities and understanding to create new products and processes that can contribute to solutions for some of the challenges that the food industry is facing.
With the growing and increasingly wealthy world population more food products of higher quality will be necessary, but our planet cannot sustain the production systems that traditionally have been used to produce high protein products like meat.
With nanotechnology, new products from plant proteins can be developed that have a structural hierarchy of meat but do not require an animal, a very inefficient and highly polluting food production process.
Improving food quality and safety is a constant point of attention within the food industry and the incidence of food or water related health problems indicate that there is considerable room for improvement.
Micro- and nanotechnologies can provide the measurement technology with which quality monitoring can be done faster, cheaper, more accurately and without a high tech lab and highly qualified personnel.
So when we have produced enough high quality food, the next challenge is to match the needs of the biochemistry of the individual consumer to the nutritional content of the food products he or she is going to eat.
Not only does this challenge require nanotechnology enabled devices to monitor the biochemistry of the consumer, it also demands the development of food products that can meet the nutritional needs. For some of the nutrients, encapsulation is required to deliver them where they have most effect.
We want our food fresh and natural, but have become addicted to the convenience of pre-cooked products and do not want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.
New packaging concepts, relying on nanotechnologies for certain attributes, can help to realize these highly contradictory requirements.
Consumer acceptance is of paramount importance when e use of nanotechnology in foods is involved. Although virtually all food products are made up of nanostructures and it is almost impossible to eat something that has not been modified with some technology, consumers still are convinced that food must be natural and that technology makes it unnatural.
There is also the misconception that nanotechnology is the same as nanoparticles and that all nanoparticles represent a health risk.
Communication about the use of the technology and willingness to discuss the concerns of the consumers is an important way towards building trust and acquiring a 'license to produce' for nano-improved food products.
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