Martin Möller, Ulrike Eberle, Andreas Hermann, Katja Moch, Britta Stratmann.
Nanotechnology in the food sector
TA-SWISS (ed.) – Centre for Technology Assessment, 2009, 228 pages
CHF 48.– / EUR 34.– (D) ISBN 978-3-7281-3234-5/ Download open access ISBN 9783728132512
vdf Hochschulverlag AG, ETH Zurich
Now available in English!
Download of the Final report (pdf)
What is nanotechnology?
The term “nano” comes from the Greek word for “dwarf”. In science and technology, we use it to define the order of magnitude “one billionth” (10-9). In the field of nanotechnology, it refers to a nanometre (nm), that is, one billionth of a metre (one millionth of a millimetre). Nanotechnology relates specifically to structures between 1 and 100 nanometres in size, which brings it into the realm of individual molecules or even atoms. At such dimensions, the properties of materials can assume significantly different characteristics, which opens up a range of new possibilities for technology. There are already everyday applications, e.g. in textiles, or in the finishing of surfaces such as window glass.
Opportunities and risks of nanotechnology in the food sector
The popular media are already carrying reports about “nanofood”, presenting on the one hand examples of products and futuristic scenarios for nutrition, and on the other mentioning unforeseeable risks. The benefits, for instance, include health-promoting additives, and there is also talk of longer shelf-lives or new flavour varieties. Among the risks, the reports point to the still inadequately clarified effects these new types of substances might have on our health. The public have their doubts about these developments, as was shown by the publifocus events held by TA-SWISS in 2006.
Why conduct a TA-SWISS study on this subject?
Experts in the field of food science are finding that at present very little practical use is made of nanotechnology in food, although it is important in basic research. The industry is already spending huge sums on researching the relative potential. That is why there is an urgent need for some clarification of the issue, before any such products are marketed on a wide scale. The public reacts very sensitively to the way food is produced; the debate on genetic engineering showed this very clearly. An early, well-grounded investigation of nanotechnology in the field of nutrition should therefore help to generate an objective discussion.
Aims of the study
- To discuss the future prospects for nanotechnology in the food sector (including packaging materials). What visions and interests are linked to these, and who are the actors behind them?
- To distinguish between “nanofictions”, as they are constantly being presented in the media, and the scientific principles and foreseeable applications based on these.
- To investigate the subject in the context of changing nutritional habits (trends such as convenience food or functional food). What requirements are there on the consumer side?
- To discuss arguments about the natural state and the “manipulation” of food in comparison with the long-standing debate on genetic engineering in food.
- To evaluate the situation in an overall assessment by comparing different strategies for “improving” foods.
- To formulate recommendations for decision makers, especially politicians.
- The analysis of the Swiss market showed that so far only few nanoscale food additives as well as food supplied with such components are available. These are additives such as silicon dioxide, carotenoids and micelles which are already in use and have been toxicologically reviewed for many years. They allow an improved handling, an improved optic and an increase of the bioavailability of nutrients.
- However, on non-European markets food additives containing nanoscale heavy metals with dubious benefits and partially risky properties from a toxicological viewpoint are available.
- In food packaging composite films and PET bottles with nano-technologically improved barrier features against gases and flavours improving shelf-life of the content can be found on the Swiss market. Furthermore, packaging with biocidal substances (mainly nanosilver) exist outside Switzerland with a view to achieve active protection against bacteria and fungi.
- At present, given the current market situation, the contribution of nanotechnology to an environmentally friendly, constitutional and ethically responsible nutrition is estimated marginal in Switzerland.
- In perspective the enrichment of food with nanoscale supplements (e.g. iron) could indeed generate a constitutional advantage in developing countries, which is connected to an economic potential on a large scale.
- A requirement for this is the human and eco-toxicological harmlessness of the applied nanomaterials. Food packaging with nanocomponents, however, already offer advantages for consumers at present and therefore hold a bigger potential for the future, especially because it also includes environmental impact reduction potential.
- The challenge for the future consists in not precluding the achievable benefit through possible existing human and eco-toxicological risks of the applied nanomaterials. At this level, for instance, the migration of toxicologically critical nano-materials of food packaging into food has to be mentioned.
- Therefore, the development of nanomaterials in the food sector and the design of the scope of regulation should be conducted by the precautionary principle. It is recommended to integrate the precautionary principle explicitly into Swiss food law.
- When implementing the principle, the current regulations to food law, which generally also include nanomaterials, should be adjusted to nanospecific demands. Concrete public guidelines for risk management for producers and importers are recommended.
- Furthermore, specific labelling of nanomaterials in ingredients and in packaging materials is recommended. The labelling shall facilitate traceability in the production chain of specific food and governmental food monitoring, as well as offering the freedom of choice to consumers. However, the enaction of a specific "nanofood law" is not recommended.
- Finally, it should be surveyed if and to what extent the regulations for traceability along the production chain for synthetic nanomaterials that ist already followed by producers, have to be adapted and how they are applied in practice.
- Regulatory measures have to be accompanied by an intensification of risk research as well as a consequent assuming of product responsibility by the producers. This especially involves increased information, transparency and willingness to communicate with stakeholders and the public.
- As is also recommended within the action plan "Synthetic nanomaterials" by the Federal Council, dialogue platforms about chances and risks as well as a corporative agreement process for the handling of nano-materials in the food sector should form an integral element of the further development process.
The study essentially comprises three modules:
- Interdisciplinary analysis
After defining the subject of the investigation, this module will analyse the product market, the state of research, the legal situation and social questions. The debate about genetic engineering will be considered in comparison with these investigations, which relate to nanotechnology. Data will be obtained by means of “desk research” (evaluation of literature and databases) and interviews with experts.
- Stakeholder survey
Detailed and current data will be gathered from experts and other key actors in the nanotechnology field with the help of a written survey. This will cover in particular topics which the results of the first module have created a need of further clarification.
- Overall evaluation
An interdisciplinary overall evaluation will analyse the results of modules one and two. Recommendations will be formulated, based on this evaluation.
Project start: spring 2007| completion: spring 2009
More attractive, fresher, healthier −
thanks to nanopackaging and nanoadditives?
Dinner is served!
Nanotechnology in the kitchen and in the shopping basket
Abstract of the TA-SWISS study «Nanotechnology in the food sector»
Pdf of the abstract in English, French and German
«Nano» auf dem Teller und in der Flasche, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 24.01.2009
Nanoteilchen in Lebensmitteln sind ungenügend reglementiert, Tages Anzeiger, 24.01.2009
Keine Deklaration für Nano-Lebensmittel, Der Bund, 24.01.2009
Des nanotechnologies dans nos assiettes, Le Temps, 24.01.2009
• Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS
• Federal Office for Agriculture FOAG
• The Innovation Promotion Agency CTI
TA-SWISS Project Supervisors
• Dr Adrian Rüegsegger, TA-SWISS, e-mail
• Dr Ulrike Eberle, Öko-Institut e.V. – Institute for Applied Ecology, Freiburg i.Br., Germany
• Martin Möller, Öko-Institut e.V. – Institute for Applied Ecology, Freiburg i.Br., Germany
• Prof. Dr Ueli Aebi, Module manager «Nanobiology», Swiss Nanosciences Institute, Basel
• Dr Andreas Bachmann, Philosopher, Ethik im Diskurs GmbH, Zurich
• Dr Michael Beer, Food Safety Division, Federal Office of Public Health FOPH, Bern
• Natalie Bougeard, Scientific journalist, L’Hebdo, Lausanne
• PD Dr. Béatrice J. Conde-Petit, Corporate Development Bühler Management AG, Uzwil
• Dr Lutz End, R&D Formulation Nutrition, Fine Chemical Division, BASF AG, Ludwigshafen, Germany
• Ruth Genner, Food scientist, President of the Green Party
• Peter Gubser, Marketing Services, Migros-Genossenschaftsbund, Zurich
• Dr Beat Hodler, Föderation der Schweizerischen Nahrungsmittelindustrie (FIAL), Bern
• Alain Kaufmann, Director Nanopublic, Interface Sciences-Société, University of Lausanne
• Prof. Dr Harald Krug, Division Manager «Materials-Biology Interactions», EMPA, St Gall
• Dr Markus Lötscher, Federal Office for Agriculture FOAG, Bern
• Dr Thomas H. Meier, Foundation for Consumer Protection SKS, Bern
• Prof. Dr Peter Schurtenberger, Center for Nanomaterials, Physics department of the University of Fribourg
• Dr Christoph Studer, Industrial Chemicals Section, Substances, Soil, Biotechnology Division, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Bern
• Prof. Dr Jakob Tanner, Research Centre for Social and Economic History, University of Zurich
• Prof. Dr Erich Windhab, Institute for Food and Nutrition Science, ETH Zurich
CH-3011 Bern T + 41 31 310 99 60
F + 41 31 310 99 61
The project in brief
Nanotechnology has arrived in the food sector – in the form of additives, or in packaging materials. The TA-SWISS study shows which synthetic nanomaterials are being used for these, which applications are likely in the foreseeable future, and where caution is called for. The study also assesses products that contain nanomaterials, with regard to environmental issues and sustainability.
Project: completet (2009)
Project mandataire: Dr Martin Möller, Institute of Applied Ecology, Freiburg (Germany)