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Hawai'i CFS

"There's Nano in Our Food?" What You Need to Know about Nanotechnology and Food Safety

By Jaydee Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst

April 10, 2014
Center for Food Safety

This is the first of a series of blogs on nanotechnology and how this emerging technology is being applied to foods and food related products.

Nanotechnology has the potential to be used in a broad array of products, including foods and cosmetics. Unbeknownst to us, it is already commonly used in many products that are part of our daily lives. However, those rushing to commercialize nanotechnologies have neglected to develop the legal, and regulatory oversight mechanisms needed to reduce the risks of these technologies. We at Center for Food Safety have identified more than 300 foods and food packaging materials that likely contain engineered nanomaterials, including a range of products from nano silver plastic containers to nano titanium dioxide coated baked goods. This explosion of nano-enabled food products has many implications for human health, the environment and the food system as we will discuss over the next few months.

What is “nano”?

Nanomaterials are so small that a nanometer (one billionth of a meter) cannot be seen by an ordinary microscope.  A piece of hair is between 50,000 and 80,000 nanometers wide. The incredibly small size gives nanomaterials different chemical, physical, and even biological properties than conventionally sized materials. 

Due to their small size, nanoparticles are able to go places in the body and in nature that larger particles cannot.[i]  Nanoparticles in food or food packaging can gain access to the human body via ingestion, inhalation, or skin penetration.  When ingested, their small size allows them to circulate through the body and reach potentially sensitive target sites such as bone marrow, lymph nodes, the spleen, the brain, the liver, and the heart.[ii]  Nanoparticles penetrating the skin can distribute through the body via lymphatic channels.[iii]  By moving into the bloodstream following ingestion and inhalation, particles measuring 1-100nm “can easily cross the blood brain barrier,”[iv] and “produce damage to the barrier integrity.”[v]

Initial scientific studies demonstrate that current nanomaterials already in foods or food contact substances on consumer shelves, such as nano silver, might be extremely damaging to human health and the environment.  Nanomaterials can cause damage to ecosystems by transporting toxic contaminants through the environment, potentially causing cancer and organ damage, and likely exposing workers to new asbestos-like substances.  Chinese researchers claim that nanoparticles used in printing products have already killed workers in China when they were inhaled by the workers.[vi]  Workers applying nanomaterials to food and food packaging materials could also inhale nanoparticles. Studies on animals indicate that nanoparticles like nanotitanium dioxide can cause cancer,[vii] cross the placental barrier from mother to fetus,[viii] and cause lung diseases like mesothelioma.

Much more research on health and safety related to nanotechnology is needed.  Unfortunately, the widespread use of nanoproducts and the fact that they are unlabeled means that consumers are exposed to health risks and are unknowing guinea pigs of this little-tested technology.  Although there is growing evidence of harmful environmental impacts, detecting, tracking, and removing these nanomaterials from the environment continues to be extremely difficult.  

Despite  significant health, safety, and environmental concerns, many of the world’s leading food companies including H.J. Heinz, Nestle, Hershey, Campbell’s, General Mills, PepsiCo, Sara Lee, Unilever, and Kraft have invested heavily in nanotechnology applications.  It is unclear exactly how many food or food related nano-enabled products are currently available; however, by some industry estimates, the total market for nano-enabled food and beverage packaging alone is expected to reach $7.3 billion by 2014.[ix]

Companies are using nanotechnologies as food additives, as flavor/taste modifers, for preservation through nano antimicrobials, for sprays, for encapsulating dietary supplement ingredients, and many other applications. Nanoclays, such as alumina and mullite are being used as dispersants and anti-caking agents, as well as in plastic bottle linings to prevent CO2 from escaping from beer and other fizzy drinks. Other ingredients being used in their nano forms include iron, titanium dioxide, silver, zinc oxide, and chitosan.

Now is the time to demand that governments around the world act to protect workers, consumers, and the natural world from the commercial drive to rapidly expand this technology.  There remains considerable secrecy around the issue of nanotechnology, including nano materials in foods, making it extremely difficult for the public (and the government) to fully grasp exactly how much production, use, and commercialization of the technology has occurred. The failure to use the precautionary principle with regard to past technological developments in the nuclear, chemical, and genetic fields proves the need for robust regulation of nanotechnology. CFS’s NanoAction program is directly addressing this urgent issue.

In subsequent blogs we will go into greater detail about the use of nano in foods and review which foods already contain nanomaterials; potential health risks of nanotechnology; the U.S. government’s promotion and failed regulation of nanotechnology; and the role of nanotechnology in current international trade talks.


[i] PIRA International, “Nanotechnology in Food Contact Applications,” Webinar November 16, 2010.

[ii] Jiangxue Wang et al., Acute toxicity and biodistribution of different sized titanium dioxide particles in mice after oral administration, Toxicology Letters 168, no. 2 (2007): 176-185,

Bing Wang et al., Acute toxicological impact of nano- and submicro-scaled zinc oxide powder on healthy adult mice, Journal of Nanoparticle Research 10, no. 2 (2007): 263-276,

[iii] Christie M. Sayes, et al., Correlating nanoscale titania structure with toxicity: A cytotoxicity and inflammatory response study with human dermal fibroblasts and human lung epithelial cells, Toxicological Sciences 92, no. 1 (2006): 174–85,

[iv] Lloyd’s Emerging Risk Team, Nanotechnology: Recent Developments, Risks and Opportunities, Lloyd’s, (2007), 13,

[v] Thomas C. Long et al., Titanium dioxide (P25) produces reactive oxygen species in immortalized brain microglia (BV2): Implications for nanoparticle neurotoxicity,  Environmental Science and Technology 40, no. 14 (2006): 4346-52,

Saber M. Hussain, et al., The Interaction of Manganese Nanoparticles with PC-12 Cells Induces Dopamine Depletion, Toxicological Sciences 92, no. 2 (2006): 456-63,

[vi]  Y. Song, et al., Exposure to nanoparticles is related to pleural effusion, pulmonary fibrosis and granuloma, European Respiratory Journal, Sept. 2009, pp. 559-567.

[vii] See, e.g., Benedicte Trouiller, et al, Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles Induce DNA Damage and Genetic Instability In vivo in Mice, 69 Cancer Research 8784-8789 (2009).

[viii] See, e.g.,Jeffery A. Keelan, Nanotoxicology: Nanoparticles versus the placenta, 6 Nature Nanotechnology 263–264 (2011)

[ix] Innovative Research & Products, Inc., Nano-Enabled Packaging for the Food and Beverage Industry – A Global Technology, Industry and Market Analysis (July 2009), outline available at

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