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Nano food gets closer

Willy Wonka is the father of nano-food. The great chocolate-factory owner, you’ll remember, invented a chewing gum that was a full three-course dinner. ‘It will be the end of all kitchens and cooking,’ he told the children on his tour – and produced a prototype sample of Wonka’s Magic Chewing Gum. One strip of this would deliver tomato soup, roast beef with roast potatoes and blueberry pie and ice cream. In the right order. Violet Beauregarde snatched it, swiftly ate it and, at the pudding stage, turned bright purple and blew up to three times her size.

Far-fetched? The processed-food giant Kraft and a group of research laboratories are busy working towards ‘programmable food’. One product they are working on is a colourless, tasteless drink that you, the consumer, will design after you’ve bought it. You’ll decide what colour and flavour you’d like the drink to be, and what nutrients it will have in it, once you get home. You’ll zap the product with a correctly-tuned microwave transmitter – presumably Kraft will sell you that, too.

This will activate nano-capsules – each one about 2,000 times smaller than the width of a hair – containing the necessary chemicals for your choice of drink: green-hued, blackcurrant-flavoured with a touch of caffeine and omega-3 oil, say. They will dissolve while all the other possible ingredients will pass unused through your body, in their nano-capsules.

The end of cooking? Probably not. Catch me having friends round for a programmable nanocola? Not more than once. But our reaction to some of the dafter promises of the new science is not really relevant. You may not want it, but the food industry does. Every major food corporation is investing in nano-tech – government in Europe has pumped £1.7 billion in research money into the field over the past eight years. Nano-food and
nano-food packaging are on their way because the food industry has spotted the chance for huge profits: by 2010, the business, according to analysts, will be worth $20 billion annually. And there is already a prototype of a Wonka-esque chewing gum that, using nano-capsules, promises the sensation of eating real chocolate.

The food industry is hooked on nano-tech’s promises, but it is also very nervous. At a conference in Amsterdam to discuss nano-technology, food and health, I found representatives of all the big food corporations, mixing with some bumptious academics, all thrilled with their latest nano-applications, and some less gung-ho bioethicists.

The food people included Unilever, Kraft, Cadbury Schweppes, Tate & Lyle and Glaxo-SmithKline: they were very shy and entirely off the record, if they spoke at all. I was having a friendly chat with a research scientist from Numico, the European baby-foods giant (their brands include Milupa and Cow & Gate) until he found out I was a journalist. Then he refused to tell me his name and asked me to erase the word ‘Numico’ from my notebook. I thought he was going to snatch it away.

It’s obvious why they were edgy. Consumers are not ready for nano-food. Among some scientists in the field there is a real sense that nano-technology, in food at least, is a revolution that may die in its cradle – rejected by a public that has lost its trust in scientists and its patience with industry’s profit-driven
fooling with what we eat.

At the conference, the media was blamed, of course. The only journalist there, I got some eggs thrown at me. Ignorant, sensationalist journalism was holding back progress, fuelling the public’s ‘irrational’ reaction to
novel food processes. But Lynn Frewer, professor of food safety and consumer behaviour at Wageningen University, a leading centre of nano-tech research in the Netherlands, called the scientists to order. It was the public’s irrational fears that needed addressing, she said: ‘It’s human nature. An involuntary risk, however remote, concerns people far more than one over which they have a choice. That’s why the public find gene technology more threatening than eating fatty, unhealthy food.’

After the debates over GMO (genetically modified organisms) and BSE, she said, public faith is very low, not just in the food industry but also the food regulators. ‘The mechanisms to make [them] transparent must be put in place and enshrined – there need to be principles that the public can understand.’

Dr David Bennett, a veteran biochemist now working on a European Commission project on the ethics of ‘nanobiotechnology’, felt the prospect was bleak. He thought public rejection of nanotechnology was ‘almost
certain’. ‘Very little risk assessment has been done on this area, even on some products already entering the market – and it’s an open question whether it will be done. To Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, it’s a
gift.’ And, he went on, the lack of proper assessment of nanotechnology scares me shitless’.

What’s to be afraid of, from a technology that offers so much – healthier food, fewer, better targeted chemicals, less waste, ‘smart’ (and thus less) packaging, and even the promise of a technological solution to the problem of the one billion people who don’t get enough to eat? Amid the papers on issues such as ‘application of nano-filtration for demineralisation of twarog acid whey’ (which will boost the yield in ice
cream and yoghurt production) one much-discussed question in Amsterdam was how government should regulate the arrival of nano in the household. There are no new rules in Europe, and some voices – including the man from Unilever’s research labs – dismissed the need for any. Nanotech is natural, he insisted: it uses no new substances, just the same ones smaller. But other scientists in the field disagree.

‘Matter has different behaviour at nano-scales,’ said Dr Kees Eijkel from the Dutch Twente University. ‘That means different risks are associated with it. We don’t know what the risks are and the current regulations [on the introduction of new food processes] don’t take that into account.’

Aluminium, for example, is stable in the ‘big world’ but an explosive at nano-levels. Some of the carbon nano-structures that are being used in electronics have been shown to be highly toxic if released into the environment. Some metals will kill bacteria at nano-scale – hence the interest in using them in food packaging – but what will happen if they get off the packaging and into us? No one seems to know – and as significant a body as the UK’s Royal Society has expressed worries over the lack of research into the health implications of free nano particles being introduced to our environment.

The size question is central to these concerns. Nano particles that are under 100 nano-meters wide – less than the size of a virus – have unique abilities. They can cross the body’s natural barriers, entering into cells or through the liver into the bloodstream or even through the cell wall surrounding the brain.

‘I’d like to drink a glass of water and know that the contents are going into my stomach and not into my lungs,’ says Dr Qasim Chaudhry of the British government’s Central Science Laboratory. ‘We are giving very toxic chemicals the ability to cross cell membranes, to go where they’ve never gone before. Where will they end up? It has been shown that free nano-particles inhaled can go straight to the brain. There’s lots of concerns. We have to ask – do the benefits outweigh the risks?’

Asbestos is the analogy everyone comes up with. Sixty years ago, the stable, cheap building material helped war-devastated Europe put up housing quickly, until it was discovered that asbestos micro-fibres, once free, could cause hideous and lethal damage to the lungs.

Dr Chaudhry has been leading a team of researchers reporting to the government’s Food Standards Agency on nanotechnology and safety. He is worried that the health research is way behind the technology and that a whole range of tests has not been carried out – for instance, on the nano-compounds already being tested for water cleaning in Third World countries. Dr Chaudry’s team has told the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it thought companies and researchers introducing nanoproducts should be obliged to notify the authorities about them. DEFRA agreed and launched the list scheme in September, but decided notification should be voluntary, not mandatory. And you and I cannot see the list – it will, out of respect to commercial interests, be kept secret.

This doesn’t sound like the sort of openness that will soothe a concerned public, all too wary nowadays of the reassurances of the food industry and science . But the FSA, which is awaiting the results next year of two research projects into nano-tech, food and safety, says it is confident that existing regulations on ‘novel’ foods, additives and food processes will cover any new products. And, at the moment, it doesn’t believe there is any nano-tech in food in Britain – though some scientists think that is wrong.

As with GM, we may be overtaken by events in the States, where food regulators have, under the Bush presidency, been steam-rollered by a food industry eager to push in the new technology. So far, however, the list of kitchen nano-products actually on American shelves is unimpressive. The
Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington research institute, runs a database of nano-tech products that are commercially available, and the list under Food and Beverage is only 29 products long, compared with 201 under Health and Fitness (I’m excited by the nano-silverised self-cleaning socks). But the list has grown 50 per cent since March, when it was only 19 products long.

Most of these products are self-cleaning and anti-bacterial food-packaging items : cutting boards and so on. There’s a couple of Samsung nano-silverised refrigerators. There are nutritional supplements, under the well-established American brand Nanoceuticals. There’s a Vitamin B12 spray marketed by Nutrition-by-Nanotech. You simply catch a child with an open mouth and spray the stuff straight in: they’ll absorb the nano-sized vitamins directly through the mucal cells. ‘Tastes like candy… Would you believe it, they are asking for more!’ runs the copy line, less than enticingly.

Only three items on the Woodrow Wilson list are listed as food. One is ‘Nanotea’, from a Chinese company, that will increase tenfold the amount of selenium absorbed from green tea (that’s a good thing), through capsules engineered to bypass the stomach and dissolve in your lower gut. There’s Canola Activa Oil, an Israeli invention: nano-capsule-delivered chemicals in rapeseed cooking oil that will stop cholesterol entering the bloodstream – this is exciting technology, utilising nano’s ability to
suspend or dissolve any substance you like in water or in oil. And finally there’s SlimShake chocolate – a powdered drink that uses nanotechnology to cluster the cocoa cells, and thus cut out the need for
sugar.

More important, what of the promise that nanotechnology offers hope to the one billion habitually undernourished on the planet? Nothing yet. Dr Donald Bruce, a chemist who heads a group examining technology and ethics for the Church of Scotland, is doubtful. He sat on a committee 10 years ago examining the moral implications of the introduction of GM. ‘The public were told that genetic modification was going to feed the world. And so we looked for evidence of any application of that science that had addressed the needs of a poor subsistence farmer. We couldn’t find any. The industry went for agronomic benefits, not for people benefits.’

With nano-tech, the food industry has once again got it back to front, he feels. ‘ Such innovation must be consumer-led – the consumer must be able to see what’s in it for them.’ Violet Beauregarde would certainly agree.

Article by Alex Renton for The Guardian, UK


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