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Nanofood: Safe and Green Cuisine

Nanofood: Safe and Green Cuisine

Russel Wheeler, Cozen O'Connor, & Francesca Levy | Bussiness Week

Con: Think Before You Eat Nano
Francesca Levy

Nanotechnology has the potential to create odor-free socks, longer-lasting batteries, greaseless sunscreen—and even junk food that can’t make you fat.

Although many of its applications remain largely theoretical, nanotechnology already has found its way into hundreds of products, many of them foods. Exactly how many is unknown, because companies don’t have to report its use, and for now, nanotechnology is unregulated. Without a better handle on its effects, we can’t let the production of food with nanotechnology continue unchecked.

Research has shown that materials shrunk down to less than 100 nanometers don’t behave the same way as their large-scale counterparts. A 2006 study by a University of Rochester toxicologist showed that when rats inhaled certain fullerenes—a type of nanoparticle—they spread to the rats’ brains, Some scientists suspect a link between these particles and brain damage, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions. A 2004 Southern Methodist University study found that largemouth bass suffered brain damage after exposure to carbon-60, a type of fullerene.

Terms like “fullerene” and “carbon-60” might make you doze off, so here’s a more familiar one: asbestos, the former “miracle mineral” whose ultrafine particles are now known to be carcinogenic. Scientists have compared asbestos to nanomaterials. A study published in Nature in May 2008 showed that carbon nanotubes are similar in shape to asbestos fibers and may pose similar cancer risks. These nanotubes, though not used in food, are often combined with drugs in hospitals, so they make their way into the body all the same.

If nanoparticles can do this much damage when inhaled or injected, the ones we eat could have unforeseen consequences. Our limited understanding of this technology should give manufacturers pause. In 2006 testimony to the FDA, the Consumers Union argued for more oversight of nanotechnology in food, saying “lack of evidence of harm should not be a proxy for reasonable certainty of safety.” In other words, what you can’t see can hurt you.

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