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Industry meets academia to discuss nanofoods

17-Jun-2005

Nanotechnology researchers and food industry representatives are meeting in the Netherlands next week to discuss how to the technology may apply to processing operations, reports Ahmed ElAmin.

Along with the technical talk a major item on the agenda will be how to prepare the public for its actual introduction into what they eat.

Food processors and researchers are studying ways of making nanomachines on a microscopic scale that can help companies ensure the safety and quality of their products.

More controversially they are also working on ways to make everyday foods carry medicines and supplements by creating tiny edible capsules, or nanoparticles, that release their contents on demand at targeted spots in the body.

Frans Kampers, the programme manager of bio-nanotechnology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands believes scientists and food processors will have to be more transparent about the risks andbenefits of nanotechnology so the public can understand for themselves how nanofoods can be an important delivery system for medicines and nutrients.

"Consumer acceptance and how they view nanotechnology in food really needs attention," Kampers said in an interview with FoodProductionDaily.com. "We do not want to end upin the GMO (genetically modified organisms) situation. We have to be honest and truthful so that the consumer can balance the risks and the benefits of nanofoods."

Wageningen University and Cientifica are co-organisers of the Nano4food conference, being held at a conference centre in Wageningen, the Netherlands on the 20 and 21 June. Cientifica is a research and consultancy firm specialising in nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology refers to developments on the nanometer scale, usually 0.1 to 100 nanometres. One nanometer equals one thousandth of a micrometer or one millionth of a millimeter. The nanofoodmarket is expected to rise from $ 2.6bn today to $7bn next year and to $20.4bn in 2010 according to a study by consultant Helmut Kaiser. About 200 companies around the world are currently active innanofood research and development.

Kampers says ongoing research by academics can help food processors in two ways, on the processing line and as a means of creating novel types of foods. It is the second use of nanotechnology, inthe creation of nanofoods, that may be less acceptable to the public.

"You are not going to eat nanotechnology," he said. "These machines are going to assure food quality. The difficulty is going to occur when you start adding nanoparticlesto food."

On the processing line nanotechnology can be used to create tiny sensors and diagnostic machines that can help ensure food does not leave the factory with contaminants. Such nanodevices can alsohelp processors detect harmful microbes and determine the shelf life for their foods. Such fine scale detection could help food processors make strategic decisions, such as the best transportationmethod for their products and storage methods, Kampers said.

"The use of nanotechnology to ensure the quality of a food product has obvious benefits for consumers," he said.

However, such robotic nanosensors and detectors are still being developed in food processing and research laboratories. Kampers forecasts that the first such machines will appear on the foodproduction line within four years.

It's in the creation of foods imbedded with nanoparticles that he expects the public to sit up and take notice. Researchers generally refer to nanofoods as being embedded with either "softparticles", those using common biological materials or with "hard particles", made up of non-organic substances.

Edible nanoparticles can be made of silicon or ceramics, or materials that react with the body's heat or chemistry, such as polymers.

"We are confident that some of the soft particle nanofoods are really harmless," Kampers said. "The body is accustomed to soft particles. They look like normal cells thatthe body knows about."

Hard particles are a different story. Here the work is more speculative as the body is not used to injesting and processing such substances, even if they are so tiny. As they are so tiny,nanoparticles exhibit different chemical behaviour than would normally be found in larger masses of material. Quantum mechanics, the behaviour of particles and surfaces at the microscopic level, comesinto play.

"We do not really know exactly how these nanoparticles go through different routes in the body and where they end up," he said. "We need more research about hte effects onfood and on the body."

The Nano4Food conference will look at ways the technology can be used in food manufacturing, distribution and consumption. About 80 representatives from the food industry, scientificcommunity and press are registered to attend, including representatives from Unilever, General Mills, Friesland Foods, Nestle, the European Commission and the US agriculture department.

"The food industry is on average reluctant to adopt new technologies," Kampers said. "We would like to show them what the possibilities are and what academia is working onand see if this triggers something. We would like to communicate that we are ready to help them."

One of the triggers academics hope to pull is more money from the industry for their research.

Note: The photograph on the front page of today's issue of FoodProductionDaily.com is published courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories, SUMMiTTM Technologies, www.mems.sandia.gov .

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