It is feared other food products could contain nanoparticles not listed on the label, the French civic environmental protection association Agir pour l'Environnement which commissioned the test warned.
However, a spokesperson for Mondelēz – the owner of two of the products listed – told FoodNavigator the nanoparticles found in its products are not “engineered nanomaterial” and hence are fully compliant with EU legislation.
Other experts argued that calls for a halt on all nanoparticles in food products is extreme when dangers are unproven.
The foods tested were LU Napolitain chocolate biscuits, Malabar tutti-frutti flavoured bubble gum (both by Mondelēz) and William Saurin canned veal stew – which all contained titanium dioxide nanoparticles (dye additive E171). The fourth was Carrefour’s mixed spices for guacamole, containing silica dioxide nanoparticles (anti-caking additive E551).
The Agir pour l'Environnement said that a review of supermarket shelves showed none of the products stated the presence of nanoparticles on the label as required under EU law.
“All 4 food products tested contained significant quantities of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica (dioxide), which have not been tested or approved for consumption by the European regulator,” an association spokesperson said. “These products should have been labelled as nano according to the European regulation on food information to consumers.”
The European Commission has required manufacturers to identify engineered nanoparticles -- those purposefully designed to be nano -- in ingredients lists since December 2014.
Mondelēz said: “Due to normal particle size distribution resulting from production of conventional, EU-approved, titanium dioxide (E171), it is possible that a very small proportion of individual particles is in the nano-size range. However, according to generally recognized and legal definitions, this will not make it an engineered nanomaterial and hence ‘nano’ labelling requirements do not apply.”
It is unclear whether the nanoparticles found in the other two products are classified as ‘engineered’.
Nanoparticles are increasingly used in food products to improve colour, taste and texture, though long-term effects of human consumption are – to a large extent – not defined, the association said.
Under the microscope
None of the four products tested have yet been removed from the market, to the best of Agir pour l'Environnement’s knowledge, Magali Ringoot, campaign director told FoodNavigator.
The Mondelēz spokesperson said there is no need to remove its products from the market or re-label them since the company meets necessary EU regulations, adding: “Our product is safe and suitable for human consumption and contains only approved ingredients.”
Agir pour l'Environnement still urge the French authorities to recall the products, and have set up a petition calling for a halt on nanoparticles in common food products until a full safety assessment has been carried out. The petition has attracted over 20,000 signatures.
The organisation hopes, with debates over nanoparticles becoming increasingly public, political and economic bodies will be forced into action, and the European legislation on labelling will be applied with stricter penalties, Ringoot added.
France’s national food safety agency, ANSES, will implement a risk assessment over consumer exposure to nanoparticles through consumption of food in 2017, an agency spokesperson revealed. Occupational exposure of workers from the food industry will also be assessed.
The evaluation will be led by the Ministry of environment and health and will run within the frameworks of action 36 of the third National Environmental Health Plan and the framework of action 1.12 of the Occupational Health Plan, the spokesperson added.
ANSES did not comment on the Agir pour l'Environnement tests specifically.
The Mondelēz spokesperson added that the company is reviewing the Agir pour l’Environnement report on its products in detail. William Saurin and Carrefour did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Nanoparticle safety debate
Agir pour l'Environnement stresses that toxic effects such as DNA damage, disruption of cellular function and weakened immune system have all been associated with nanoparticles in foods. In particular, researchers have studied the potential risks of the small size of nanoparticles and their ability to interact with cells.
However, one expert argued that calling for a block on nanoparticles is somewhat extreme.
Another expert – Professor Andrew Maynard, director of the risk innovation lab at Arizona State University – told us titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide have been used in foods for decades, sometimes in nanoparticle scale.
“In the US, both materials are allowed for use in foods by the FDA in small quantities, and are considered safe,” he said.
“In the case of titanium dioxide, it is used as a pigment grade material with most particles being several hundred nanometers in diameter, but (it) has a size distribution that extends to the nanometer size range. For silica dioxide, the particles are typically made as nanoparticles (and have been since the 1940’s), but fuse together into larger structures.”
Further research needed
In any case, Ringoot said: “We really lack (…) independent and rigorous evaluations.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended further research into nanoparticles in relation to consumers should be carried out and meanwhile risk assessment strategies should be applied.
The WHO and ANSES have both acknowledged that materials intentionally produced on nanoscale may have different properties to their larger counterparts and could interact differently with other substances present in the food matrix.
“Such differences may have an impact on human health following consumer exposure to nanomaterials,” the WHO said in a 2013 meeting report.
Agir pour l'Environnement’s recent tests follow a similar study sponsored by Friends of the Australian Earth, which found titanium dioxide and silica dioxide in 14 household food products.
“The silica and titanium dioxide in all 14 food products tested contained a high proportion of nanoparticles that have not been tested, labelled or approved for consumption in Australia. Furthermore, peer reviewed studies have raised health serious health concerns regarding the use of these nanoparticles in food,” the team said.
Other food safety groups looking into nanoparticles include the US Center for Food Safety, which has compiled a database of nanotech in food. As You Sow is another, which issued a shareholder proposal to Dunkin’ Donuts challenging the company to assess the risks of using nanomaterials in its foods. As a result, the company removed nanomaterials from its powdered donuts.
The Mondelēz spokesperson added: “(The company) is not using nanotechnology. If we get to a point where we intend to use nanotechnology, we’ll make sure that the appropriate environmental, health and safety implications have been addressed.”