From formulation to food safety: 5 ways nanotechnology could change the food industry

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Nanotechnology could unlock fresh innovation in the food sector ©iStock/Sergey Khakimullin
Nanotechnology could unlock fresh innovation in the food sector ©iStock/Sergey Khakimullin
A greater awareness of nanotechnology – understanding and exploiting materials at the atomic and molecular level – could offer food innovators a useful tool to drive R&D, Professor Kathleen Groves, a Fellow at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST), tells FoodNavigator.

Materials at a nanoscale have markedly different properties to those at the macroscale. This means nanomaterials offer “exciting new benefits”​ to many applications, including food.

While nanotechnology is used across a variety of different industries, from electronics to building and pharmaceuticals, there are only a small number of applications in the food sector. Where it is used in food, the application of nanotech is mainly concerned with supplements and packaging.

Professor Groves, who has pioneered the use of microscopy for food structure analysis and quality assessment, believes that there is significantly more scope to increase the use of nanotech in food.

Nanostructures present in foods are already common stabilisers, she noted. “One of the most quoted is the stabilisation of emulsions using an emulsifier at the interface of the oil and water in spreads or dressings, [such as] egg in mayonnaise. Sometimes this is a protein layer or a permitted additive emulsifier with protein. Structurally this thin interface is present at the nano scale (less than 100nm) around the oil droplets and effectively keeps the water and oil separate, avoiding pooling in the bottle or container. It also keeps the oil droplets at the right size to give a creamy texture, as well as stability and preventing microbial growth.

“Understanding how these nano structures affect sensory properties allows the product developer to change ingredients and keep the same taste or texture or shelf life.”

For example, such an appreciation could help R&D professionals reformulate foods. “Moving to a different emulsifier or even lowering fat, or salt or sugar, to make healthier products, could mean a change in the nano structures that are formed between ingredients during mixing and cooking. Changing the size or shape of certain ingredients, such as salt or sugar, can help in reducing the levels of these in products while keeping the taste.”

Health, safety and food security

Professor Groves identified five principal areas where the use of nanotechnology could benefit food makers.

Firstly, she said, it can help the food sector deliver formulations and products that promote health. “It can bring innovation in formulations for health, such as using nano iron and nano calcium as a supplement, which are more easily absorbed than standard forms… Other examples are where vitamins and other helpful additives such as probiotics, which need to be encapsulated to survive processing, or made very small to prevent them coming out of solution in drinks.”

Food safety could also benefit from developments in nanoscience already in use in the building industry, she predicted. Nanotech has the potential to bring innovation in food safety by helping to develop new antimicrobial ingredients or nanocoatings that could be used in food preparation to coat equipment to prevent microbial growth.

Nanotech could support the development of active and ‘smart’ packaging to boost food safety and help combat food waste, Professor Groves continued. “Further developments in food safety are in using nanotechnology for smart and or active packaging for foods.

“Active packaging examples include adding nano clay or silica particles to plastic beer bottles to slow down oxygen diffusion and thereby increasing shelf life. Smart packaging uses nanotechnology to incorporate sensors in the packaging material that tell you when the product is deteriorating. Examples are the use of intelligent inks that turn red to alert you or the retailer that the product should not be eaten.”

Again focusing on the potential of nanotech to make our food more secure, Professor Groves noted that it has the potential to improve testing for contaminants. “Nanotechnology can help in food analysis by developing rapid and extremely sensitive tests that are able to detect any toxins or pathogens very rapidly supporting food safety.”

Nanotechnology could also be applied to various applications in the supply chain, In agriculture, it could help develop “nano encapsulated pesticides”​ that “increase absorption, allowing a lower dosage to be applied”​, for instance. “Nanotechnology can help in biosecurity, especially in documenting and informing the supply chain,”​ Professor Groves, who is a member of the IFST scientific committee, explained. 

‘It will open up a new ways of working’

While nanoscience is relatively underutilised in the food sector, Professor Groves stressed that there are a number of potential overlaps with developments in other fields, with potential for technology transfer from sectors like medical development and electronics.

“It will open up a new way of working in R&D with cross technology platforms, mixing scientists from different disciplines. The areas of personalisation and the gut microbiome are areas of potential innovation that could benefit,”​ she forecast.

Professor Groves expects packaging will initially be the “most likely area”​ for continued development. Knowing when food is unsafe to eat offers a huge benefit to the consumer and the environment, a key driver for any new innovation or technology.

But the potential of nanotechnology goes well beyond this: “Developments in nanotechnology will enable precise control of ingredient functionality, cleaner manufacturing with less detergents used, smarter packaging and more consumer interaction with their food.

“Understanding the relationship between food, diet and health will continue to be an area of interest generally and nanotechnology will be involved.”

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