Kathy Groves, project manager microscopy, food innovation, at Leatherhead Food Research was presenting at FoodDrinkEurope’s fourth annual nanotechnology stakeholder dialogue meeting - Potential applications of nanotechnologies in the food industry - which saw policy-makers, researchers, consumer groups and the media debate the technology.
Last year a UK parliamentary report raised concerns that the food and packaging sectors were being too secretive about nanotechnology. In January 2010, the House of Lords concluded that industry risked a public backlash if continued in its reluctance to disclose details of its research into the emerging technology.
But Groves claims that: “There has never been any secrecy in relation to nanotechnology within the European food industry.” She maintains that brand owners are “on the horns of a dilemma - they want openly engage with consumers on a range of emerging food technologies but need to find a way of doing so without losing commercial advantage.”
In February this year, the UK’s Food Standard Agency (FSA) said it was considering signing confidentiality agreements with food and packaging companies in a bid to persuade them to share information on nanotechnology research.
But a previous report from the UK government suggested that any measure forcing food and packaging companies to submit details of nanotechnology research to a national database could trigger an R&D exodus from the UK.
Trust in food
Groves told FoodNavigator.com that, essentially, the European industry needs to press home the fact that “no matter what the size,” it should be science and technology that engenders greater trust in food and not the contrary.
And she argues “all stakeholders need to communicate this message clearly to consumers, they need to create more awareness around food manufacturing processes and, crucially, the focus of any education campaigns should be on the benefits of new technology.”
Some of these benefits, continued Groves, include the production of lower-fat foods with similar properties to their full-fat equivalents through the use of nano-emulsions or foods with a healthier profile whereby the use of smaller particles, which allow for finer dispersion and a more intense taste, mean the manufacturer can use reduced levels of sugar and salt in products.
There is also a need for awareness raising, continued Groves, around the differences between nanomaterials - those that are naturally occurring (organic) such as proteins, starches, fats and oils and those that are produced to introduce new properties to a food (inorganic) such as the whitening agent titanium dioxide.
Recession hindering nano R&D
Nevertheless, the food scientist cautions that, through her collaboration with UK food and drink manufacturers, she has ascertained that the recession has been holding back much research work in the area of nanotechnology in that market.
“Nano has never been a research priority. Ant the food and beverage industry has other pressing needs right now such as how to make a product at the right price.”
As well as R&D costs and European consumers' Frankenstein food concerns, she notes uncertainty of market returns, and confusion over regulation as other forces holding back the use of nanomaterials in food and packaging.
The food scientist also reports that there are fewer constraints on the US and Asia in terms of consumer resistance to foods produced using new technologies. In fact, Asians in particular embrace science and will be more inclined to buy a product if it is marketed on a new technology plaftorm, notes Groves.
In her presentation, she flagged up examples of products on the Asia markets that claimed to be produced using nano-technology. She cited Fonterra’s Anlene Low Fat Milk Powder, which is sold in Malaysia,and is said to contain a form of nano-calcium that is 100 times smaller than normal calcium, and thus helps it 'get right to the core of the bones.'
Ajinomoto Frozen Foods’ Pure Select Nano Hana Mayonnaise, sold in Japan, is also said to have used a nano-emulsion to reduce calories by 70%, this was said to be achieved by decreasing the oil content to less than 30%.