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Nanotechnology Bringing Foods, Regulated or Not, to Grocery Near You

For centuries, it was the cook and the heat of the fire that cajoled taste, texture, flavor and aroma from the pot. Today, that culinary voodoo is being crafted by white-coated scientists toiling in pristine labs, rearranging atoms into chemical particles never before seen.

At last year's Institute of Food Technologists international conference, nanotechnology was the topic that generated the most buzz among the 14,000 food-scientists, chefs and manufacturers crammed into an Anaheim, Calif., hall. Though it's a word that has probably never been printed on any menu, and probably never will, there was so much interest in the potential uses of nanotechnology for food that a separate daylong session focused just on that subject was packed to overflowing.

In one corner of the convention center, a chemist, a flavorist and two food-marketing specialists clustered around a large chart of the Periodic Table of Elements (think back to high school science class). The food chemist, from China, ran her hands over the chart, pausing at different chemicals just long enough to say how a nano-ized version of each would improve existing flavors or create new ones.

One of the marketing guys questioned what would happen if the consumer found out.

The flavorist asked whether the Food and Drug Administration would even allow nanoingredients.

Posed a variation of the latter question, Dr. Jesse Goodman, the agency's chief scientist and deputy commissioner for science and public health, gave a revealing answer. He said he wasn't involved enough with how the FDA was handling nanomaterials in food to discuss that issue. And the agency wouldn't provide anyone else to talk about it.

This despite the fact that hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown that nanoparticles pose potential risks to human health -- and, more specifically, that when ingested can cause DNA damage that can prefigure cancer and heart and brain disease.

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