In an exclusive interview, Professor Niels Christian Nielsen, winner of this year's Danisco Award, shared his thoughts with Stephen Daniells on the rise of nanotechnology and gave insight on this fascinating new area of the food industry.
Nanotechnology, although still only an emerging science, is already being used in a vast array of products in several industries, including the food industry.
Based at the University of Aarhus, Prof. Nielsen's pioneering research into the field and strong international research profile netted him this year's Danisco Award. The company said his "introduction of advanced, scientific and entirely new methods of characterisation and measuring of food components as well as food intake in living organisms," was key to their choice.
Prof. Nielsen, also director of the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Insoluble Protein Structures (inSPIN), played a key role in establishing Denmark's NanoFood Consortium in 2005.
The consortium, made up of 12 partners from industry and academia, aims to ensure the food industry stays competitive by collaborating with research institutes active in food, nutrition, and nanotechnology.
"We are having a very good impact on nanoscience in general," he said.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology refers to the control of matter at an atomic or molecular scale of between one and 100 nanometres (nm) - that's one millionth of a millimetre.
Despite still being in its infancy, current estimates on the value of products using nanotechnology put it currently in the range of US$7bn. According to some, the market could be worth as much as $20bn by 2020.
But there is a long way to go, said Prof. Nielsen. "Nanotechnology has to mature to a certain level to be part of daily life."
Currently, nanotech is being used in a range of applications, from the design of computer chip layouts based on surface science, to design of new polymers. The main commercial applications using nanotechnology are in cosmetics and suntan lotions, drug delivery, and surface coatings - but the potential for food is not small.
Nanotechnology is already seen by many as a key source of innovation for food products. Indeed, more 600 nanofood products are already available on the global market, according to new data from the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy (HKC).
Moreover, HKC predicts a change of 40 to 60 per cent in the food industry by 2015 as a result of nanotechnology.
And, with players such as Danisco and Arla Foods onboard, Denmark's NanoFood consortium is making big noises with nanotechnology. While still limited to Denmark, Prof. Nielsen admits to having a larger ambition. "Obviously we want to be international," he said.
With the team assembled, what directions is the research heading?
Prof. Nielsen sees bioactives - nutritional ingredients that are active at a physiological level -as an obvious growth area.
Nanotechnology has potential to protect these valuable compounds as they pass through the early parts of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and subsequently controlling their release and absorption in the gut.
"There is much more potential than employed currently," he said.
But applying nanotechnology to ingredients is not limited to nutrition.
"We could develop nanoparticles to deliver a particular flavour direct to biological receptors," he said. This is beneficial because a smaller, targeted amount of flavour could be used.
"But there are questions here: How do we encapsulate? How do we deliver and release? All these require a lot of technology," said Prof. Nielsen.
Packaging is one of the areas of the food industry where the use of nanotechnology is prominent, including making bottles and packaging lighter and stronger, with better thermal performance and less gas absorption.
The Dane is currently looking into the potential of nanotechnology as biofilms in food. "We're going more into surface related problems. This is an interesting area," he said.
"By identifying bacterial adhesion, we can use nanotechnology to prevent this. It is a basic science approach at an atomic level. If we can understand the problem at this level, we can prevent bacteria sticking."
In the wider scientific community, in addition to the production of lighter and stronger materials, nanotechnology for packaging has focussed on embedded nanosensors to enable consumers to "read" the food inside. Sensors are reportedly being developed that will alert consumers before the food goes rotten, and will provide information on the nutritional status of packaging contents.
The area, according to Prof. Nielsen, clearly has much potential but to say that nanotech could truly revolutionise packaging it is too soon to say.
(HKC begs to differ. It says a quarter of the food packaging market, currently worth $100bn, is expected to go nano in the next decade.)
Note of caution
There are some concerns about nanotechnology, particularly in relation to absorption and reaction, and the possibility of nanoparticles crossing natural barriers and membranes. But Prof. Nielsen believes that, overall, the public has a positive, curiosity-driven impression of it.
"There are risks and danger. [For the moment] we simply don't know," he admitted. "But if we're very careful and balance our research with awareness to risks, we might influence the development of nanotechnology to be a safe technology without many of the "negative" stories known from many other new technologies."
"This will have to be explored in health-related studies," he said. "But small particles have other ways of interacting [to larger particles]"
So what do we do about this?
"What you have to do as a scientist is to be aware of the risks, bring the technology to a level where is can be used and then regulate the right and the wrong," advised Prof. Nielsen.
He pointed out that much of the food/drug related nanotechnology used currently in the iNANO laboratories, like those based on natural lipids or chitosan, are derived from natural products, and therefore, in his view, less prone to be harmful than fully synthetic nanoparticles.
However, nanotechnology remains a regulatory black hole - there are no regulations or labelling requirements to allow consumers to make an informed choice at present. This can open the doors for misuse of the nano-buzzword to brand products with negative side-effects while not being nano. The European Food Safety Authority has only recently been asked by the European Commission to deliver a scientific opinion on the subject.
Breaking down barriers
"When I promote nano," said Prof. Nielsen, "I see the real great benefit is breaking down boundaries, not only between academia and industry, but also between different disciplines. It is opening doors for new research and new products (medicine or food)."
And by pouring together their respective expertise, thinking small looks set to produce big things for the food industry.
The NanoFood Consortium currently includes Aarhus Karlshamn, Arla Foods, Danisco, Systematic Software Engineering, NanoNord, Danish Institute of Agricultural Science, Danish Institute for Food and Veterinary Research, Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO) at the University of Aarhus, Engineering College of Aarhus, Danish Meat Research Institute, and the Danish Technological Institute.
Stephen Daniells is the science editor for NutraIngredients.com and FoodNavigator.com. He has a PhD in chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.