Are you eating nonfoods? While it might sound like the latest diet trend among anorexics, the term refers to the use of nanotechnology - particles as small as a billionth of a meter - in food. And there's a chance that you're already eating them.
Nanofoods fall into four categories. First, and most obviously, there's the use of nanotechnology directly in a food that you eat. Second, there are supplements that use nanotechnology. And the last two categories, which are similar, are comprised of things you don't eat that use nanotechnology: food packaging and cookware.
In those cases, are nanoparticles ingested or not? And in all cases, is it safe?
By and large, nanofoods are an area of mystery to all. We don't know if it's safe, we don't know when and where we might be eating them, and we don't know when the FDA will decide it's time to regulate them.
Perhaps the best source of information on nanotechnology, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Technologies, maintains a database of consumer products around the world that use nanotechnology. For food, they list mostly supplements, plus several applications in food packaging (such as in McDonald's burger containers or plastic beer bottles), a few uses in cookware, and hardly anything for food.
However, other sources, such as a recent AOL News piece by Andrew Schneider, point to much more common uses of nanotechnology in food.
According to Schneider's account, an unnamed scientist at the USDA says that, "apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers and other fruit and vegetables are being coated with a thin, wax-like nanocoating to extend shelf-life. The edible nanomaterial skin will also protect the color and flavor of the fruit longer."
He goes on to tell of "engineered particles ... already being sold in salad dressings; sauces; diet beverages; and boxed cake, muffin and pancakes mixes." And most major food manufacturers have or contract with nanotechnology labs. If that's the case, Americans are eating nanoparticles already. But nanoparticles of what?
The name nanotechnology applies to nanoparticles of any chemical, but there is a world of difference between nanosilver or nanocopper, used for its antibacterial properties, and carbon nanotubes, which many fear resemble asbestos and cause similar harm. (Carbon nanotubes, thankfully, are not headed for our food; nanosilver might be, which is worrying.)
What are the risks and benefits of each type of nanoparticle, and how do we know if each one is safe?