In an information statement issued this month, the UK-based institute argues that more safety data are needed before nanoparticles can be used in foods or food packaging materials.
Current regulations therefore need to be strengthened.
Nanotechnology deals with controlling the properties of matter with lengths of between 1 and 100 nanometres. One nano-metre is equal to one billionth of a metre, and is about the size of a small molecule.
This opens up a whole universe of new possibilities, but also fears. Given that there is no requirement to label foods containing nanoparticles, consumers are unlikely to be aware of such applications in foods.
"Nanotechnology has already provoked public concern and debate," said the institute. "There are equally vociferous proponents and opponents of this new, emerging technology."
A major concern is that there is, presently, too little information on the properties of nanoparticles and, in particular, on how their very small size might influence toxicity. Size matters, says the IFST; it is therefore necessary to treat nanoparticles as new, potentially harmful materials and to test whether they are safe or harmful.
"In using nanotechnology, it is important to assess how products of nanotechnology will eventually lead to the release of nanoparticles into the environment and to estimate our subsequent levels of exposure to these materials," said the information statement.
An appropriate pre-market safety evaluation should therefore be established. This evaluation should focus on the effects of particle size as well as composition, and should be required even if the compound from which the nanoparticle is made is already food-use approved.
The institute also says that safety and toxicological data contained in the dossiers submitted in support of an application for authorisation relating to food use should be available for peer review in the public domain. And where ingredients or food-approved additives have been replaced with nanoparticles of the same chemical composition, the safety dossiers should demonstrate how the effects of particle size have been considered.
Audit trails should reference safety and toxicity data on the nanoparticles used in foods and food packaging materials and would be very important if, at some future time, such products had to be identified and removed from the market.
Many food scientists of course would claim that the industry already embraces nanotechnology. Food proteins are globular particles between 10s to 100s nm in size true nanoparticles.
When starch is boiled to make custard, small 3-D crystalline structures only tens of nanometres in thickness are melted. How thick the mixture becomes, or whether it sets to a gel as it cools, depends on the re-crystallisation of the nanostructures formed by the starch polysaccharides.
And new innovations are continually hitting the market. Aquanovas recent nanotech antioxidant system for essential oils and flavours is a clear signpost of where food ingredient technology in the 21st century is headed.
The product, which is marketed under Aquanova's Novasol brand as Novasol CT, is designed to help manufacturers introduce antioxidants into food and beverage products easily and effectively.
The information statement issued by the IFST can be seen an attempt to open up further opportunities for innovations such as this. By examining the potential benefits and risks and reviewing present government, safety and regulatory attitudes towards the technology, the institute hopes to further understanding of this innovative science.
The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) is an independent professional qualifying body for food scientists and technologists. It is totally independent of government, of industry, and of any lobbying groups or special interest groups.