Nanotechnology is the study and engineering of structures at the nano-scale; usually in the range of 1-100 nm. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To visualize how small this is, take out a strand of your hair and look at it. It is approximately 80,000 – 100,000 nm in width. The difference between one nanometer and your hair is literally about same as the difference between an inch and a mile. The size of a red blood cell is 7000 nm while hemoglobin is 5.5 nm, and a DNA strand is only 2.5 nm. A single chlorine ion 0.36 nm. Scientists have found that at the level of nanoparticles, new properties are exhibited. For example foods may exhibit different color, flavor, texture and functionality based on the size and arrangement of their nanoparticles. In food, scientist have utilized nanotechnology to:

  1. Increase antioxidant property
  2. Modify color and flavor
  3. Emulsify fats
  4. Inhibit caking
  5. Encapsulate and transport nutrients

In packaging, scientist have utilized nanotechnology to:

  1. Sense spoilage of food
  2. Destroy pathogens
  3. Increase rigidity
  4. Prevent gas and moisture transfer
  5. Resist oxidation and rancidity

Presently, there is no regulation of nano-foods. However, guidance documents in Europe and the US has been written. In general, the FDA has not taken a stance on whether or not the technology is good or bad but have chosen instead to continue to investigate their safety on a case-by-case basis. Presently nano-sized food ingredients can be passed as GRAS if their larger sized counterpart is. This is a concern since we know that at the nano size, some substances may have completely different, even toxic properties. The FDA encourage food manufacturers to contact the agency well ahead of adding nano-ingredients to foods in order to work with them to ensure that the new substances do not pose significant risks.

The following are health concerns regarding nanotechnology in foods:

  1. Increased bioavailability and access to parts of the body where they were not able to access before
  2. Possible accumulation and toxicity
  3. So small that they do not trigger the body’s immune system like larger foreign materials do
  4. Some evidence of binding and damage to DNA
  5. Have been found to cause damage to lung tissue when inhaled, causing chronic breathing problems
  6. They may destroy beneficial bacteria when released in the environment


  • Courtney Simons

    Dr. Courtney Simons has served as a food science researcher and educator for over a decade. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Ph.D. in Cereal Science from North Dakota State University.