EU turns food spotlight on use of nanomaterials

Use of nanotechnology in the food industry follows its large scale adoption in other industries — such as miniaturisation. Like this Tarantula Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle used by British and US forces in Afghanistan for surveillance.

Controversy over genetic modification offers ample proof that food is not one of the areas where new technology is automatically welcomed.

And now, the spotlight falls on nanomaterials.

Manipulation of materials at the nano scale (one billionth of a metre) has been used since the 1960s, and manufacturers claim nanotech benefits for hundreds of goods.

It’s only in recent years that the impact of this technology on humans and environment is being more closely assessed.

Easy-to-clean surfaces, for example, self-cleaning windows, are one of the useful advances based on nanotechnology.

It also features in drug delivery, neuro-implantable medical devices, encapsulation and delivery of nutrients in food, food packaging, smart pesticides, water filtration, soil and water remediation, fuel cells, chemical sensors, cosmetics, and sports goods.

Nanotechnology can be used to enhance the taste, colour, flavour, texture and consistency of a variety of foods. It can be used to improve the nutritional value of food by boosting bio-availability of certain nutrients.

For example, organic nanoparticles can be used to encapsulate nutrients to make them better available to the consumer — or to mask undesirable tastes or odours. Some inorganic nano-particles have a range of potential uses as additives and preservatives. Nanomaterials in “smart” packaging can improve gas barrier properties, or temperature and moisture stability. Or they can release anti-microbial compounds, or antioxidants, to improve shelf life. They can also assist in product bio-security and traceability.

Nano-foods are on the market, but it only now that EU authorities are bringing them under the scope of directives and laws. This will be a lengthy process, but the early exchanges reveal disagreement between the European Commission and the European Parliament.

A Commission proposal that food additives already on sale and potentially containing nanoparticles would be exempted from nano-labelling has been shot down by a committee in the parliament. MEPS said that would deny consumers their right to be informed.

As in GM rows, scientific advice from the European Food Safety Agency is at the centre of nano-labelling rows. However, on this occasion, MEPs are on the EFSA side, in opposition to Commission.

EFSA has recommended that foods containing more than 10% Nanomaterials have to be carry labels declaring this. MEPs agree, but the Commission proposed a 50% threshold.

Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), says that consumers are un-sure about the safety of nanomaterials, and do not see clear benefits of foods containing nano materials.

“The EU’s food labelling law will oblige producers to declare when their foods contain nanoparticles so that consumers can decide for themselves whether or not to buy such products. The European Commission’s ill-advised proposal would limit their right to be properly informed. We welcome MEPs’ decision to send it back to the drawing board,” Goyens said.

“A food ingredient should be considered an ‘engineered nanomaterial’ when 10% of its particles are nano-sized. There is no convincing explanation why the Commission would disregard advice from Europe’s independent expert food science body,” she added.


Not all trends are created equal. Some are exciting – like first-date butterflies; others are comforting – like ice-cream and Golden Girls reruns.Trend of the Week: Floral free for all

Veterinary medicine is a demanding career, leading to mental health problems for some vets.Elephant in the clinic: Helpline offers support to vets with mental health difficulties

Pearl Lowe turns 50 in April – and she’s got a lot to celebrate. TA look into the reinvention of Pearl Lowe

Bonnie Ryan couldn’t be happier.On a roll: Why Bonnie Ryan couldn't be happier

More From The Irish Examiner