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Nanotechnology advances have been applied to innumerable industries ranging from electronics and batteries to medicine and food products. In the food industry, nanotechnology has been utilized in order to enhance the delivery of food ingredients to target sites, increase flavor, inhibit bacterial growth, extend product shelf life and improve food safety.
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of microscopic matter that ranges from 1 to 100 nm in size. Because food and water are naturally made up of particles that are on the nanometer scale, engineered nanoparticles are able to penetrate these products easily based on their similar properties. These particles can act as a whole unit by performing similar transportation functions that prove useful in almost every industry, particularly involving food products.
Powders and Vitamins
Powders and vitamins have been engineered through nanotechnology in order to increase the delivery of nutrients and target human systems for more efficient nutrient absorption. By decreasing intestinal clearance mechanisms, nanoparticles can dramatically prolong the residence time of food materials in the gastrointestinal tract, further enhancing efficient delivery throughout the body.
Nanomaterials have a large surface area that has the capability to enhance properties such as strength and reactivity that are of particular interest in food and packaging products.
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The application of nanotechnology in food packaging allows for greater food protection through stronger mechanical and thermal capabilities and increased antibacterial properties. Nano-engineered food packaging provides biodegradable protection against leakage, gas penetration and pathogen entrance into foods. For example, silver, a well known anti-microbial agent, has been utilized for these properties in nano-engineered food packaging. One case study examined the effect of silver nanoparticles on bacterial growth and found a 98 percent reduction in growth after a 24 hour incubation period.
The benefits of nanotechnology in food products seems unimaginable, and they have already proven to be effective for numerous products. However, it is important to consider the fact that nanotechnology does involve a foreign invasion into our food supply. In a world where pesticides and pollution alter the safety of our foods and increase long-term toxic effects, how can we be sure that the addition of foreign nanoparticles is safe?
Nanoparticles are particularly useful because of their unique properties such as high surface-to volume ratios, reactivity, and microscopic size. These same properties that are utilized for their health benefits can also cause potentially toxic effects.
Nanoparticles can enter biological systems through dermal exposure, inhalation, and/or ingestion. The extent of nanotoxicity, which is the study of the toxicological impact on the body by nanotechnology, often depends on nanoparticle properties including size, mass, chemical composition, surface properties, and particle interactions.
Particle penetration plays a significant role in determining its toxicity, as well as possible nanoparticle accumulation and translocation throughout the body. The tiny size of nanomaterials permit them to pass more easily through cell membranes and other biological barriers, allowing these particles to be easily taken up into organisms and cause cellular dysfunction.
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One of the most dangerous biological effects of nanoparticles involves its production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Superoxide anion radicals, hydroxyl radicals, singlet oxygen and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) are all biologically relevant ROS that have beneficial roles in cellular signaling systems. The overproduction of these ROS can induce oxidative stress, resulting in cells failing to maintain normal physiological functions.
Oxidative stress is a precursor to significant cellular damage including DNA-strand breaks, unregulated cell signaling, apoptosis (programmed cell death) and even carcinogenesis (the production of cancer cells).
Age-related degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), arthritis, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and cancer are associated with the overproduction of ROS.
The production of ROS is of serious concern when discussing the potential use of nanoparticles, especially in mediums involving food and packaging that directly interact with our biological systems. Certain antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), peroxidases and catalases play an important role in limiting the damage caused by ROS.
One strategy of interest to prevent nanomaterial-induced toxicity is to develop dietary antioxidants that could prevent the formation of these dangerous hydroxyl radicals. However, there is still no clear understanding of the exact interactions of nanomaterials within biological systems, and therefore more scientific research must be conducted regarding the safety of nanotechnology in food products.
Certain laws such as the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act exist in the United States in order to ensure the health and safety of the public. These laws, along with other regulatory efforts by federal health agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are being applied to nanotechnology research initiatives. Despite the lack of international regulation over nanotechnology and products, the FDA is one of the first government agencies in the world to have definitive initiatives regarding nanoproducts. In cooperation with the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the FDA has publicly defined nanotechnology as “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1-100 nm, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.”
Since 2007, the NNI has also funded research projects focused on addressing societal concerns regarding the potential negative human and environmental impacts of nanotechnology. This research hopes to provide the public with a better understanding of the broad implications of nanotechnology, and avoid any possible misconceptions of this science.
While the FDA has demonstrated initiative in understanding the complex field of nanotechnology, the agency has stated that they regulate “products, not technologies.” This has provided some difficulty in establishing designated regulation policies for foods enhanced by nanotechnology.
Further scientific research development is needed to assess the applications of nanotechnology to food and agricultural products in order to manage their potential adverse effects.
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