European food companies already use nanotechnology in consumer products, but few volunteer the information to consumers, said Dutch food scientist Frans Kampers.
He is among the panelists gathered in Chicago for the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting symposium "From Donuts to Drugs: Nano-Biotechnology Evolution or Revolution."
Kampers from Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands will take a look at food science issues in his presentation, "What Nanotechnology Can Do for Your Average Donut."
"All of us as scientists are being impacted by nano-bioscience and there are many issues. The interdisciplinary aspect is just one of them," said Rod Hill, a University of Idaho professor and symposium organizer.
The panel includes two graduate students, Jessica Koehne of the University of California, Davis, and Kristina Kriegel of the University of Massachusetts, are working on projects combining, nanotechnology with biology and chemistry.
"On the food side there is greater public resistance to nanomaterials and nanotechnology in food whereas on the biomedical side there is greater public acceptance or less recalcitrance," Hill added.
His focus on applications, products and processes, and on sensors useful for in food safety and food quality monitoring and in packaging, reflects the wide range of nanotechnology's use in the food industry, Kampers said.
"The problem I always face is that people do not understand what we are doing with nanotechnology and food," Kampers said. "Everyone has this vision of nanotechnology being nanoparticles and nanoparticles being risky, so they are very afraid that nanoparticles in food will have an adverse effect on health."
The promise of nanotechnology, the Dutch scientist said, is it could allow re-engineering ingredients to bring healthy nutrients more efficiently to the body while allowing less-desirable components to pass on through.
European food scientists use nanotechnology to create structures in foods that can deliver nutrients to specific locations in the body for the most beneficial effects, Kampers said.
"We are basically creating nanostructures in food that are designed to fall apart in your body because of digestion so in the end there will not be nanoparticles," Kampers said.
He said there are some researchers studying applications of persistent nanoparticles in food and packaging that he believes could present risks. Use of metal, usually silver, nanoparticles in packaging to slow spoilage could move from the packaging material into the food itself.
"The persistent metal or metal oxide nanoparticles could move into the bloodstream, and research has shown they can migrate into cells or in some cases even into the nucleus of cells," Kampers said.
"These are the more controversial applications of nanotechnology," Kampers added. "More research is necessary to understand the kinetics and dynamics of these particles before large-scale applications in food are developed. At the moment, these types of nanoparticles are rarely used in food products."
Idaho's Hill worked with co-organizers Sally Tinkle, senior science advisor to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Office of the Director, and Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, to develop the seminar to cover nanotechnology and its intersection with biology.
In October, Tinkle co-chaired a session with a Chinese Academy of Science professor about "The Molecular Basis for Engineered Nanomaterial Interactions with Human Health and the Environment" in Beijing.
"We've covered a fairly broad swath because we wanted to cover the areas where the general public might interact with nanotechnology," Hill said.
As the Society of Animal Science representative to AAAS, Hill said he felt the seminar is important because nanotechnology offers new medical treatments and ways to understand processes in living things. Interdisciplinary expertise is essential, both for students entering the field and for established researchers.
"We are working collaboratively in the Biological Applications of Nanotechnology group to answer complex questions about how nanomaterials interact with living systems – animals and humans," Hill said of his work at the University of Idaho. "I work with a nucleic acids chemist, materials engineers and a physicist. We all have our own languages and there are examples of what a physicist understands and what I understand coming from a biological sciences perspective."
"There's a whole different cultural character to the interdisciplinary work and it's a difficult learning period," Hill added. "We need to get to a point where we understand enough about someone else's discipline and how their research area can link with my research area to be able to develop strategies for successful outcomes.' Kampers noted nanotechnology promises widespread applications in electronics, medicine, healthcare, food and nutrition. "However, before we can benefit from these opportunities, society must gain trust in the new technologies, accept them and issue a "license to produce" to industry," he added.