FOOD: Edible Nano is the New Frontier

September 5, 2002

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Imagine a meal that modifies its color, flavor or nutrients to satisfy your taste buds and health needs. Industry and academia are teaming up to make sure this is not just a scene from Star Trek.

Food-related nanotechnology research is already underway and could significantly affect our food supply within the next decade. Here's a sampling of potential nanotech innovations:

  • Food that can alter its color, flavor or nutrients to suit each consumer's preference or health requirements.
  • Filters that can take out toxins or modify flavors by sifting through certain molecules based on their shape instead of size.
  • Packaging that can detect when its contents are spoiling, and change color to warn consumers.

On the academic front, the food science department at Rutgers University, NJ, has recently hired what it believes is the world's first professor of food nanotechnology. Qingrong Huang, who started his new job on Sept. 1, points to two main areas of research: customized delivery of nutrients and nanoscale sensors. "The idea is bioengineering or biotechnology, rather than pure food science," he says. "This is a totally new paradigm and there are a lot of challenges." Meanwhile, Jozef Kokini, department chair and director of Rutgers' Center for Advanced Food Technology, finds the most potential in food-borne "nutraceuticals" that could carry drugs to the areas of the body that need them and in packaging that senses its contents' condition. "In our opinion, this is one technology that will have profound implications for the food industry, even though they're not very clear to a lot of people," he says.

On the industrial front, in 1999, Kraft Foods, the $34 billion behemoth that owns the Oscar Mayer, Nabisco and Post brands, launched the first and, maybe the only, nanotechnology laboratory among the large food companies. However, Kraft has focused more on its "NanoteK" research consortium than on in-house development. Established in January 2000, the consortium is made up of 15 universities and national research labs, including Harvard University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Connecticut, Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories, the Universities of Seville and Malaga in Spain, and Uppsala University in Sweden. Kraft provides the funding for food nanotechnology research at each institution. "We're doing this to keep a leadership position in food science," says Manuel Marquez-Sanchez, research director of Kraft's nanotechnology lab. "We want to know how to use this technology for food safety and quality." He says Kraft's main focus is tailoring food products. "Potentially we could have products that recognize a person's profile—his allergies or nutritional deficiencies—or packaging smart enough to realize that you need more calcium."

Several consortium members are exploring nanoparticles that can function like capsules, encasing certain flavors, colors or nutrients until a microwave or other device causes them to selectively release their ingredients. Marquez-Sanchez co-wrote a paper on such nanocapsules that was recently published in the journal Science. He explored the use of olive oil as the capsule in the academic paper, which was co-authored by researchers from the Universities of Seville and Malaga. He calls its publishing "one of the big feats of our consortium" and expects more of the consortium's work to appear in major publications in the future.

Consortium members are also at work on other cutting-edge food production and packaging technology. For example, Gustavo Larsen, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Nebraska, is developing cellulose-based "smart filters," which are coated with an inorganic compound that can be inscribed with certain molecules' shapes. "Someone at Kraft had the vision to realize that conventional food technology won't make you competitive later on," he says. "My sense is that they would like to see some kind of solid results three or four years from now."

Meanwhile, at the University of Connecticut, associate professor of chemistry Greg Sotzing is working on an "electronic tongue," that can sense minuscule amounts of many different types of chemicals, using small electrodes coated with a conductive polymer. "The food industry is often after a certain smell or taste with a minimal amount of a certain chemical," says Sotzing. "This device can detect parts per trillion, which is tremendous for a sensor that costs about 50 cents to produce. There are instruments that cost $150,000 and do a worse job." This "electronic tongue," says Sotzing, could one day be utilized in products such as meat packaging that could adjust color when it detects the meat starting to go bad.

Source: Brainy Food: Academia, Industry Sink Their Teeth into Edible Nano
Elizabeth Gardner
Small Times, June 21, 2002

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