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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT