The small size of nanomaterials offers significant opportunities for developing pathogen-resistant surfaces that could be used to reduce the risk of cross-contamination of bacteria in food processing plants and the transmission of food borne illness via packaging, said Carmen Moraru, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University.
She explained at the Cornell Food Systems Global Summit Dec. 8 at Cornell University that nanomaterials are unique in that they have different physical and chemical properties than their scaled-up versions and are governed by quantum mechanics, which allows them to function in ways their larger counterparts cannot.
For example, through nanofabrication anodization smooth metal surfaces, which are popular gathering grounds for pathogens, convert to a durable, corrosion-resistant, anodic surfaces covered with interlocking honeycomb shaped pores to which it is difficult for bacteria to stick, Moraru said.
While it is possible to control the size of the pores, research shows the most effective size pores for repelling bacteria is 15-25 nanometers, Moraru said, adding, any larger and the pores will trap bacteria.
Nanofabrication also, “in food processing plants, could reduce energy, cleaning costs and waste water streams,” Moraru said.
Nanotechnology also can ease cooking preparation by helping food not stick to pans and utensils, she noted. At least 15 cooking products available in the U.S. already use this technology, according to an inventory of consumer products made with nanotechnology compiled by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN).
PEN is an organization “dedicated to helping ensure that as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized, public and consumer engagement remains strong and potential new benefits realized,” according to it is website.
The potential applications of nanofabrication also extend to bio medical equipment and water processing applications, said Moraru, who added current “research is very active in nano delivery systems.”
Pause for concern
Moraru noted the benefits of nanotechnology are no longer marketed on most consumer products, including foods, made with the technology because consumer uncertainty about its safety led to a backlash against the technology when it was first emerging commercially.
“Consumers get really concerned when there are things they can’t understand well,” Moraru said.
She explained that when nanotechnology first became a financially viable option for new product development manufacturers “though it was neat” and used it as a “buzz word,” but “the public was taken aback” and rejected the technology. Now marketers are much more careful and do not use the term much.
The public’s response to nanotechnology is not unwarranted, Moraru acknowledged. “We really don’t understand fully how the integration of nanoscale matter interacts with the human body,” and whether it can penetrate the skin or cross the blood-brain barrier.
“That is where a lot of work needs to be done,” she noted.
Still, she told attendees, nanoscale matter already is in the food supply both naturally – such as nanosized proteins – and as intentionally manipulated molecules. She added most manipulated nanomolecules are in supplements and very few are in foods.
FDA chimed in on the debate about nanotechnology in food and drug products with draft guidance issued in May 2012. The guidance discussed whether changes in manufacturing processes can affect the safety of food. However, critics say the voluntary guidance is insufficient. (Read more HERE and HERE.)