You might think that the cleverest thing a physicist can do with your food is to explain why dropped toast always lands butter side down (incidentally, they can). But the U.K. House of Lords Science and Technology Committee today released a report noting the increasing ways in which nanotechnology, which concerns itself with particles, processes, and devices on the nanometer scale, has become important to food and food packaging. For example, the molecular structure of plastic beer bottles can be altered so that they retain gases such as carbon dioxide as well as glass ones do—thus making sure the next round has a foamy head.
Some—including the heir to the U.K. throne, Prince Charles—have expressed concern that the union of nanotechnology and food could create unintended dangers.
Nanoparticles can squeeze through barriers in the body inaccessible to ordinary foods and might potentially enter the bloodstream and accumulate in vital organs.
Yet the Lords committee, while predictably calling for more research into the topic, concluded that there was no concrete evidence of danger from “nanofoods” and identified several potential benefits, such as the potential to make salt taste saltier by altering the size of its crystals. At the same time, the Lords acknowledge “huge gaps” in knowledge—including precisely defining what constitutes a nanofood. “We urge the European Commission to clarify the definition of a nanoparticle in the context of food,” said committee chair John Krebs. “Size isn’t everything: You have to think of the way the particles interact with the body.”
At a briefing yesterday, Stephen Holgate, an immunologist at Southampton University Hospitals Trust and adviser to the committee, drew attention to the potential for nano-engineering to alter the allergenic properties of foods: “Nanomaterials are being used to enhance immunological responses in the medical world. The very limited amount of research that’s been done in nano-engineered versions of allergenic foods indicates that they divert the immune response away from allergy, but no single nanoparticle is the same as the next one.”