One healthy byte

By TaylorGleason

Imagine the day when doughnuts are considered health food and vegetables taste like candy. It may seem far off, but the technology that would make it possible—nanotechnology—is already available, and was the topic of discussion at an American Association for the Advancement of Science seminar earlier this year.

Genetically modified plants are already on the market. The Food and Drug Administration released guidelines in January for genetically modified meat production.  Now, the United States Department of Agriculture is assessing how to label other food products that have been engineered with nanotechnology.

“We have little information from companies that use [nanotechnology] in food. They’ve been close-lipped,” said Todd Kuiken, a research associate for the Project on Emerging Technologies.

Andrew Maynard, the chief science advisor of the Project for Emerging Technologies, spoke about nanotechnology in food at the seminar. He said companies could already be implementing nanotechnology without talking about it because there are no requirements for them to report its use.

“It is very unclear who they should tell about the fact that they’ve [used nanotechnology],” Maynard said.

But one motive companies may have to share their use of nanotechnology is the ability to advertise the engineered food as healthier than the food currently on grocery shelves.

Maynard used mayonnaise as an example.

He explained that mayonnaise is made of molecules that are both filled and coated with tiny fat bubbles. Nanotechnology, he said,  could replace the fat on the inside with water, while keeping the fat on the outside of the molecule. Mayonnaise would be much healthier with the reduction in fat and the bubbles remaining on the outside would maintain the taste and texture of mayonnaise that people love.

This is “manipulating matter at a very fine scale,” Maynard said.  For the most part, all of the components of engineered food would come from the original food and they would simply be rearranged.

Nanotechnology is almost a game when it comes to food, Maynard said. Companies are “playing around with how you can enhance foods.”

Rod Hill, a physiology professor at the University of Idaho, organized the American Association for the Advancement of Science seminar.

He said that production can also add nutrients to food,  in addition to rearranging them.

Hence, the doughnut’s chance to become healthy.

Hill said it is easy to add many different things to food on the nano scale because these molecules are of similar size to vitamins and nutrients.

“I think the field is wide open,” Hill said of the new opportunities for food engineering, and that the technology could create benefits beyond “improving the healthful content of food.”

In the midst of this advancement, it is no surprise to Hill if people get queasy at the thought of nanotechnology in food. He said that based on the poor reaction to genetically modified plants, research about nanotechnology must be done with rigor and information must be presented mindfully to the public.

Maynard said that five years ago food companies were more apt to embrace nanotechnology, but recently they’ve been “pulling back” for fear of how consumers will respond.

Kuiken said he believes the success of integrating nanotechnology depends on “how engaged the public is as the technology progresses.”

Kuiken also cited a conclusive study completed by the Project for Emerging Technologies, which reported that nanotechnology is safe for use in food packaging.

But for food itself, the dangers have not been assessed. Maynard said everything depends on the type of nanotechnology, because some are “most definitely going to be safe.”

Molecules behave differently on a nano scale, Hill said, and therefore the question remains how engineered molecules will interact with the body. He added that he sees nothing in life is without risk, but he would eat food that has been modified if studies showed it was safe.

Hill said he believes more efficient food production could answer many problems with supply and demand in many markets. He said engineering food could help us feed the world’s growing population.

Nanotechnology is an option in the works, whether it is used to end world hunger or to reduce the sugar load in the everyday breakfast cereal by hollowing the sugar molecules, which could combat our own country’s problem with obesity.