The future of food
Nanotechnology in our food may not be as far away as you think.
Speaking at the University of Tsukuba on June 17, he claims nanofood, a term he coined back in 1998, is the future of food production and will bring us tastier, healthier foods at lower costs than conventional production.
But perhaps the future is already here—nanotechnology is already being used to add healthy fish oil to bread, without the fishy taste, and to supplement canola oil with phytosterols, a chemical from plants that is thought to reduce cholesterol. These supplements are encapsulated in nano-particles, which don’t release their contents until they arrive in the stomach, and so don’t affect the flavor of the food.
Another use for nanofoods is to reduce our intake of the sugars, fats and salts that we just can’t seem to give up. Nanofoods may utilize the high surface area of tiny salt particles to give the same amount of flavor from less salt. Similarly, water droplets coated in nano-particles of oil can be used instead of regular oil droplets in mayonnaise to give the same flavor from less oil.
But what exactly is nanotechnology?
The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.” A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter. To put this in context, the thickness of a sheet of office paper is about one tenth of a millimeter, or 100,000 nanometers, and nano-particles are at least 1,000 times smaller.
Nanotechnology occupies the same size range as viruses and large molecules (but smaller than bacteria). Because of their tiny size and high surface area, nano-sized particles have different reactive properties and behave differently to larger particles. These properties make them particularly useful for coating or encapsulating other materials.
So nanotechnology refers to the size of the materials being used, rather than what kind of materials they are. Consequently, nanotechnology is applied to a wide range of seemingly unrelated fields, and is currently used in the production of such diverse products as paints, lubricants, construction materials, batteries, textiles, cosmetics, drug delivery systems, and yes, even food.
Nanotechnology can also be used in a range of products related to our food—time-released agricultural chemicals, filtration systems that can remove bacteria and viruses, edible food packaging and packaging that indicates the freshness of its contents, luminescent indicators to test for bacteria, non-toxic cleaning products, and the list goes on. Oh, and if you own a refrigerator with a silver deodorizer that reduces odors and kills bacteria, guess what—you own some nanotechnology.
Of course, with so many potential applications, nanofoods are set to become big business. According to Dr Kim, nanotechnology is about to follow a similar explosion in growth to that seen for textiles, cars, and computers, with the current nanofood market of US$40 billion predicted to grow to US$200 billion by 2020.