Nano focus: Are protein nanostructures safe for the food industry to use?

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Nano focus: Are protein nanostructures safe for the food industry to use?

Related tags Food

While many foods already contain naturally occurring nanostructures that are perfectly safe to consume, the potential to develop new nanoscale proteins for foods may carry unexplored risks that must be dealt with on a ‘case by case’ approach, say researchers.

Writing in Trends in Food Science & Technology, ​the team behind the new review noted that nanotechnology offers many potential advantages in the processing and manufacture of foods, including enhanced bioavailability, colour and flavour; novel food textures; new delivery mechanisms; and access to biosensors to enhance food safety.

However, the team warned that an increased focus on research in food nanotechnology in recent years has raised concerns about the safety of nanotechnology - not only in the food industry but also in all products for consumption and use by humans.

“The use of nanotechnology in the food industry is in its infancy but has the capability to introduce changes at all levels of food production, including nano-based food materials, active packaging, new delivery mechanisms for nutrients and agrochemicals, biosensors for food safety and many other potential applications,”​ said the authors – led by Jared Raynes from Callaghan Innovation Research Limited in New Zealand and CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences, in Australia.

“In fact, many of the foods we have been consuming for centuries already contain nanostructures, leading many to assume that they are safe,”​ they added.

Indeed, the team noted that the three main components of food - proteins, carbohydrates and lipids - all exist at the nanoscale and come together to form complex mixtures with diverse physical and chemical properties.

However, Raynes and his team suggested that evidence to date ‘suggests that there is no simple answer’ to the question of whether we should deliberately introduce novel protein nanostructures in to foods – adding that research will be required for each case, rather than a general solution for all proposed protein ingredients.

“The extent to which novel nanostructures may afford new risks has not been adequately resolved, however, leading to concern within some consumer groups,”​ they wrote.

Processing risk?

The authors noted that food processing has the potential to alter the structure of food proteins that can result in protein aggregates that may result in ‘ordered nanostructure formation’ or may result in proteins unfolding and misfolding.

While the authors emphasised that many processing technologies have been used to produce safe food for many years, and whilst the formation of nanostructure proteins such as amyloid fibrils and other aggregated structures have been observed under specific, well-defined laboratory conditions in the studies described above, “it is not clear how these observations translate to an industry setting where volumes are larger and conditions more heterogeneous.”

Novel nanostructures in food?

Raynes and his team noted that current evidence reviewed by the team suggests “we should proceed with caution when considering the development of new nanostructures for use in food, especially amyloid fibrils.”

They noted that such a view is consistent with the UK Lords Science and Technology Committee, which has also called for caution, suggesting further discussion and the establishment of a list of commercially available products containing nanomaterials maintained by food agencies along with more transparency in the industry.

“Advances in this field rely on studies that aim to improve our fundamental understanding of nanotechnology in food, from the tools used to assess and characterise structures in food to the methods used to assess potential toxicity,”​ they said – noting that the key issues include the interactions between nanostructures and the food matrix, as well as the absorption, digestibility and persistence of nanomaterials.

Source: Trends in Food Science & Technology
Volume 37, Issue 1, Pages 42–50, doi: 10.1016/j.tifs.2014.02.003
“Protein nanostructures in food – Should we be worried?”
Authors: Jared K. Raynes, et al

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1 comment

Protein nanostructures - worrying

Posted by Anna Jacobs,

I find this very worrying. I have several severe food intolerances, including corn/maize as well as wheat. Most producers and sellers of food haven't even noticed the rapidly increasing trend to maize sensitivity, just the wheat one. Will they notice anything else it's too much trouble to bother with in these new processes?

And in case you think I'm fussing about nothing, consuming the foods which upset me gives me atrial fibrillation and has landed me in hospital when I didn't realise what the obfuscation of terminology meant. And I've not got the worst type of sensitivity.

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