Skip to main content

Study the use of nanoparticles in food

By Andy Behar, Special to CNN
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andy Behar: Some foods contain tiny, engineered particles called nanomaterials
  • Behar: Nanoparticles might pose health risks, since they have adversely affected mice
  • He says not enough studies have adequately demonstrated the safety of nanoparticles
  • Behar: With an emerging technology such as this, companies have to be careful

Editor's note: Andy Behar is the chief executive of As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes corporate accountability.

(CNN) -- Some foods sold in supermarkets across America contain tiny, engineered particles called nanomaterials. Our organization decided to test doughnuts after learning that the titanium dioxide used as a coloring in the powdered sugar coating likely contained nano-sized particles.

The tests, conducted by an independent laboratory, found that both Dunkin' Donuts Powdered Cake Donuts and Hostess Donettes did indeed contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles. In response, a spokeswoman for Dunkin Donuts said the company was looking into the matter.

You must be wondering: What are nanomaterials? They are microscopic in size. "If a nanoparticle were the size of a football, a red blood cell would be the size of the field." Nanoparticles have been heralded as having the potential to revolutionize the food industry -- from enabling the production of creamy liquids that contain no fat, to enhancing flavors, improving supplement delivery, providing brighter colors, keeping food fresh longer, or indicating when it spoils.

Andy Behar
Andy Behar

But there are a few problems.

One is that no one knows how many and which food products have them. Companies are not being forthcoming about whether they are using nanoparticles. To further complicate the issue, some companies may not even be aware that they are selling products containing them.

Many companies are reluctant or uninterested in discussing the issue, and concrete information has been difficult to obtain. The majority of food companies are not responsive in providing information about their specific uses, plans and policies toward nanoparticles. There is also no law in the United States that requires disclosure. In contrast, companies in the European Union are required to label foods containing nanoparticles.

The bigger issue with nanoparticles is that they might pose health risks, as they have been found to in tests on mice.

There are not nearly enough studies that can adequately demonstrate the safety of nanoparticles in food additives or packaging. Scientists are still investigating how the broad range of nanoparticles, with their myriad potential uses, would react in the body.

When ingested, nano-sized particles can pass into the blood and lymph, where they circulate through the body and reach in potentially sensitive sites such as bone marrow, lymph nodes, the spleen, the brain, the liver and the heart.

Our knowledge about how nanomaterial food additives react in the body and their health impact is still in its infancy. While efforts are under way to understand them better, much deeper scientific inquiry should occur before nanoparticles are sold in food and food-related products.

More companies and consumers need to be aware of the use of engineered nanomaterials in foods and the potential unknown risks of this technology. More food products like M&M's and Pop-Tarts should be tested as recent studies have identified them as likely to contain nanomaterials as well.

Fortunately, a few companies have become willing to take a public position on nanoparticles.

McDonald stated that it "does not currently support the use by suppliers of nano-engineered materials in the production of any of our food, packaging, and toys." Similarly, Kraft Foods said that it was not using nanotechnology.

Some of the largest food companies in the world, including YUM! Brands, PepsiCo, and Whole Foods, need to know more about nanomaterials and check with their supplies to see if they are using them.

Americans are becoming increasingly interested in what is in the food they're eating. No longer content with label information on daily allowances of vitamins and minerals, U.S. consumers are following the lead of their counterparts in many other countries by demanding more disclosure about where and how their food is grown and whether it is safe.

Even though communicating risks to consumers can be challenging, the public's perception of safety will be paramount in determining the acceptance of nanomaterials. This is especially true for an emerging food-products technology the safety of which even the FDA has acknowledged a lack of understanding.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andy Behar.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT