Researchers Study Safety of Nanotechnology in Food

Updated: 11/05/2013 5:32 PM By: Josh Rosenthal

Nanotechnology is a big deal. That's a little ironic though, because it's all about working with materials that are really really small.

How small? Imagine the width of a human hair, then chop it into 100,000 pieces. Once some materials get that small, they act differently, and that's the key. Researchers think they can use nanotechnology to make a lot of things better - including your food.

"It doesn't have to be all of the ingredients," explained University of Minnesota Nanotechnology Policy Researcher Jonathan Brown. "It doesn't have to be all of the food. Just one ingredient and you could consider that as nanofood."

Brown said foods like Tic Tacs, Mentos, and some Greek yogurts already use nanotechnology. They have what's called titanium dioxide, a nano-sized pigment that makes foods whiter. Down the road, Brown thinks we could also see vegetables with more flavor or fruits that stay fresh longer.

But, there is a lot that we still don't know about nanofood. As Brown explained, "we don't know what the risks to human health and safety may be." He says there might be no risk at all. There just hasn't been enough research to tell. Also, there are no specific laws that require the labeling of nanofoods.

Jim Marti works in the Minnesota Nanocenter. We asked him if we should be worried.

"People shouldn't be scared of nanotechnology with the adequate approach to regulation and safety, it's tremendously useful technology," he answered. Marti says that regulation for nanofoods is developing. He also points out that nanotechnology already does a lot of good. For instance, it's why most electronics so much smaller than they used to be.

Brown recently studied public attitudes toward food nanotechnology and labeling. He says people aren't totally opposed to nanotechnology in food, but they aren't fully embracing it either. His findings show that people want clear labels on nanofoods, even if it costs more.