Industry needs to be more open about nanomaterial use, says As You Sow

By Joe Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

The products that As You Sow hope to test. Photo credit: Jacquy Argote, ZB Films.
The products that As You Sow hope to test. Photo credit: Jacquy Argote, ZB Films.

Related tags Nanotechnology

A US not-for-profit organisation has slammed the “murky issue” around potential risks of nanomaterial use and pledged to test products to assess their safety.

As You Sow is aiming to raise $9,000 to test​ Mars-owned M&M’s, Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Trident Gum by Cadbury to see if they contain nanoparticles and the organisation said if they do, they will pressure the manufacturers to stop using them in their products until safety is proven.

The group is taking action after sending a survey to more than 2,500 corporations, receiving just 26 responses, asking whether they used nanoparticles in their food.

As You Sow want industry to develop policy on nanomaterials and called for a specific person in each company using them to be responsible for product safety.

The group said untested nanomaterials have been used in food to brighten colours, enhance flavours, and improve supplement delivery and in packaging to increase shelf-life, barrier properties, heat resistance and temperature control, and as anti-microbial and fungal protections.

The concern centres on the potential of nano-sized particles of previously-approved substances to change properties when ingested, inhaled or via skin penetration.  

Dunkin’ Donuts test

The drive comes off the back of the organisation working with Analytical Sciences LLC to test donuts for titanium dioxide (TiO2​) as that is the only form of titanium allowable in foods.

Dunkin’ Donuts Powdered Cake Donut lists titanium dioxide as an ingredient in the white powdered sugar so it was tested for the presence of nanoparticle sized titanium dioxide.  

Two kids eat donuts 02
Jacquy Argote, ZB Films

The tests removed the sugar and subjected it to tests before finding one donut of a Dunkin’ Donut Powdered Cake Donut would result in the ingestion of 8.9 mg of TiO2​ less than 10 nm in size.  

“While there are varying definitions of what constitutes a nanoparticle, our testing assessed a conservative particle size of less than 10 nm. The test results underscore that the low-end of the nanoparticle-sized spectrum (<10 nm) titanium dioxide is present in our food supply,” ​they said.

Andy Behar, CEO at As You Sow, told that they had contacted Dunkin’ Donuts about the issue and the firm told The New York Times was working with its supplier to validate the findings of As You Sow's tests.

Unclear definition

Further clouding the issue is the lack of consensus on what size constitutes a nanomaterial, said the Slipping Through the Cracks: An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Food paper.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidelines in April 2012 outlining nanotechnology may result in different product attributes.

“At this time, we are not aware of any food ingredient or FCS intentionally engineered on the nanometer scale for which there are generally available safety data sufficient to serve as the foundation for a determination that the use of a food ingredient or FCS is GRAS​,” the agency said.

The European Commission said nanomaterials must be assessed on an individual basis but silicon dioxide, carbon black and titanium nitride are authorised for use in plastic food contact materials.

Lack of answers

As You Sow sent a survey to 2,500 corporations including 100 food processing companies, 50 distributors, 75 retailers, 25 packaging companies, 50 fast food companies and 187 nutritional supplement firms.

However, after follow up calls and emails, only 26 survey responses were received and an additional 38 companies responded to follow-up Facebook inquiries.

Behar said failure to respond highlighted the general lack of transparency in the industry.

Of those that did respond, 14 said they are not using nanotechnology and eight said they are not developing policies but 10 said they did not know.

Of the 38 responses from Facebook inquiries, 30 said the company does not use nanomaterials in its food products without providing information about whether nano was added in their supply chain.

Precautionary principle

Behar added that they may have great benefits but their uses need to be proven safe first.

“We will go back to industry six months from now and offer help to understand the supply chain, some firms don’t know but they are not asking and we need to be able to track a product back.

“Companies are saying one thing and regulators are saying another, there are contradictions so we reached out to try and ensure the right questions are asked of their supply chain.”   

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