Industry still wary about nano in food: Leatherhead

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology, Food

Nervousness about nanotechnology in food in Britain may see the UK food industry left behind, warns an expert from Leatherhead Food International.

Nanotechnology, although still only an emerging science, is already being used in a vast array of products in several industries, including the food industry. However, wariness to link food and nanotechnology is slowing progress.

Kathy Groves, food microscopist and project leader at LFI, told FoodNavigator.com the consultancy has launched a working group to help industry explore the application of nanotechnology in their products.

“We’re interested in the natural organisation of food because this occurs at the nano-level,”​ said Groves.

“Nanotechnology has he benefits, from processing improvements, to reducing fat, salt and sugar. But you want the mouthfeel and flavour, and these are really big drivers,”​ she 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.

Nano-emulsions

One area being studied by the working group is nano-emulsions. These are interesting because they offer improved stability, said Groves.

“You can make nano-emulsions of oil,”​ she explained. “With a fat-soluble vitamin in the oil, you can make a nano-emulsion, put them into a drink and they will be invisible.”

The technology can be applied for reducing the fat content of foods by producing nano fat crystals, she said. “We do know that if we reduce the fat crystal size, we can improve functionality and put less fat in the product.”

LFI is actively looking to extend the working group on the nano-emulsions, said Groves. “Some companies are very keen,”​ she said. “Some companies are very keen but nervous.”

The consultancy is looking to extend the focus to other ingredients and hydrocolloids.

Groves also highlighted the potential of nanotechnology to help in the removal of artificial colours, noting that nanoparticles of natural compounds could reproduce the colours in food systems.

Food safety

Nanotechnology has already made inroads into food safety, predominantly from a packaging perspective, for the production of lighter and stronger materials. Beyond this, 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

An area of interest for LFI is to application of nanotechnology to the surfaces of some food processing equipment. Nanotech-modified surfaces can prevent food sticking to it, facilitating cleaning and reducing loss, and also prevent bacteria growing on the surface

Projects focussing on this technology are not up and running at present at LFI, but the consultancy are actively looking at this area, said Groves.

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