Nanotechnology and food: what should we worry about?

The potential use of nanotechnologies in food gives rise to two distinct types of issue. There’s a narrow issue, about whether engineered nanoparticles are entering the food chain, and if so, whether this leads to any dangers to human health. But there’s also a rather broader set of issues that arise from the fact that we are now able to alter the nanoscale structure of food with much greater control and purpose than before. Of course, we should balance the positive benefits of such interventions against any potential risks. But this assessment will necessarily take place in a context which goes well beyond the technical issues that surround nanotechnology, and takes in people’s deeply held instincts about our proper relationship with our food.

The key worry about engineered nanoparticles was that, because approvals for food additives didn’t typically specify size, a nanoscale version of an existing additive, which might have new problems of toxicity, might slip through the regulatory net. In Europe, at least, this potential problem seems to have been headed off by last year’s amendment of the Novel Food Regulation, making clear that any food containing or consisting of engineered nanoparticles will need mandatory pre-market assessment and approval. There are still issues relating to the precise definition of a nanomaterial to be sorted out here; nanomaterials created from natural food substances will be a particular point of contention. Nonetheless, there is progress here – one welcome and concrete sign of this is that it seems no longer possible to buy nano-silver “food supplements” from health food shops, following a recent ruling by the European Food Safety Authority.

What about the broader applications of nanotechnology in food? In my evidence to the House of Lords inquiry, I picked out three key potential areas of food nanotechnology:

• Food science at the nanoscale. This is about using a combination of fairly conventional food processing techniques supported by the use of nanoscale analytical techniques to achieve desirable properties. A major driver here will be the use of sophisticated food structuring to achieve palatable products with low fat contents.
• Encapsulating ingredients and additives. The encapsulation of flavours and aromas at the microscale to protect delicate molecules and enable their triggered or otherwise controlled release is already widespread, and it is possible that decreasing the lengthscale of these systems to the nanoscale might be advantageous in some cases. We are also likely to see a range of “nutriceutical” molecules come into more general use.
• Water dispersible preparations of fat-soluble ingredients. Many food ingredients are fat-soluble; as a way of incorporating these in food and drink without fat manufacturers have developed stable colloidal dispersions of these materials in water, with particle sizes in the range of hundreds of nanometers. For example, the substance lycopene, which is familiar as the molecule that makes tomatoes red and which is believed to offer substantial health benefits, is marketed in this form by the German company BASF.

The key issues here aren’t so much about safety. For some, there will be an instinctive recoiling from the idea of manipulating our food at such a fundamental level, while others will regard these methods as no different in principle from more traditional cooking and food processing. Some people will argue that, rather than using nanotechnology to make food less fattening and more nutritious, we should just eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. Countering this, others will say that the reality of the way people live now dictates that pre-prepared and processed food will be increasingly important in people’s diets, so food manufacturers have a moral obligation to use available technology to make their products as healthy as possible. As is the case for many debates that centre on nanotechnology, it will be values as much as safety that people argue about.

Natural nanomaterials in food – the strange case of foie gras

Here’s a footnote to my commentary on the House of Lords nanofood report and the government response to it. There’s a recommendation (14, para 5.32) that the definition of nanomaterials for regulatory purposes should exclude nanomaterials created from natural food substances, with which the government agrees. I accept that this distinction is a practical necessity, and I would go along with the report’s paragraph 5.31: “We acknowledge that nanomaterials created from naturally-occurring materials may pose a potential risk to human health. However, we also recognise also that it is impractical to include all natural nanomaterials present in food under the Novel Foods Regulation, and that many natural nanoscale substances have been consumed for many years with no ill effects reported.”

But I do think it is important to contest the general assertion that things that are natural are by definition harmless. There’s a long tradition of using food processing techniques to render harmless naturally occurring toxins, whether that’s simply the cooking process needed to destroy toxic lectins in kidney beans, or the more elaborate procedures needed to make some tropical tubers, like cassava, safe to eat.

There’s been a recent report of a situation where a potential link between eating naturally formed nanomaterials and disease has been identified. The nanomaterials in question are amyloid fibrils – nanoscale fibrous aggregates of misfolded proteins, of a kind that have been associated with a number of diseases, notably Alzheimer’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (see this earlier post for an overview of the good and bad sides of these materials – Death, life, and amyloids).

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a couple of years ago, Solomon et al (2007) showed that foie gras – the highly fatty livers of force-fed geese – contains nanofibers (amyloid fibrils) of amyloid A protein, which when fed to mice susceptible to AA amyloidosis lead to the development of that disease.

AA amyloidosis is a chronic, incurable condition often associated with rheumatoid arthritis. The suggestion is that, if AA amyloid fibrils enter the body, they will act as “seeds” to nucleate the conversion of more AA protein into the amyloid form. A more speculative suggestion is that AA fibrils could also nucleate the formation of amyloid fibrils by other susceptible proteins, leading to other kinds of amyloid diseases. The authors of the paper draw the conclusion that “it may be hazardous for individuals who are prone to develop other types of amyloid-associated disorders, e.g., Alzheimer’s disease or type II diabetes, to consume such products” (i.e. ones contaminated with amyloid protein A fibrils). It seems to me that it is stretching what the data shows too far to come to this conclusion at the moment, but it’s an area that would bear closer investigation.

Nanotechnologies and food – the UK government responds to the House of Lords

Last week the UK government issued its response to a report on nanotechnologies and food from the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, which was published on 8 January this year.

The headlines arising from this report concentrated on a perceived lack of openness from the food industry (see for example, the BBC’s headline Food industry ‘too secretive’ over nanotechnology), and it’s this aspect that the consumer group Which? concentrates on in its reaction to the response – Government ignores call for openness about nano food. This refers to House of Lords recommendation 10, which calls for the establishment by the Food Standards Agency of a mandatory, but confidential, database of those nanomaterials being researched by the food industry. The government has rejected the proposal that this should be mandatory, on the grounds that this would drive research away from the UK. However, the government has accepted the recommendation (26) that the FSA maintains a publicly accessible list of food and food packaging products that contain nanomaterials. This will include, as recommended, all materials that have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority, but the FSA will explore including other materials that might be considered to have nanoscale elements, to allow for the uncertainties of definition of nanomaterials in the food context. Where their Lordships and the government agree (and disagree with Which?) is in rejecting the idea of compulsory labelling of nanomaterials on packaging.

The House of Lords report, together with all the written and oral evidence submitted to the inquiry, can be downloaded from here. For my own written evidence, see here – I mentioned my oral evidence in this blog post from last year.

Responsible innovation still needs innovation

The UK government’s policies for nanotechnology seem to unfold in a predictable and cyclical way – some august body releases a weighty report criticising some aspect of policy, the government responds in a way that disappoints the critics, until the cycle is repeated with another critical report and a further response. The process began with the Royal Society/ Royal Academy of Engineering report in 2004, and several cycles on, last week we saw a new comprehensive government Nanotechnology Strategy launched (downloadable, if you’re lucky, from this somewhat flakey website). One might have thought that this process of dialectic might, by now, have led to a compelling and robust strategy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

The immediate prompt for the strategy this time was the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) report ‘Novel materials in the environment: the case of nanotechnology’, from 2008 (see Deja view all over again for my view of that report). As its title suggests, that report had much to say about the potential risks posed by nanomaterials in the environment; it also had some rather interesting general points to make about the problems of regulating new technologies in the face of inevitable uncertainty. Unfortunately, it’s the former rather than the latter that dominates the new Nanotechnology Strategy. Having been criticised so much, ever since the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report, about the lack of action on the possibility of nanoparticle toxicity, it is defensiveness about this issue that dominates this strategy. Even then, the focus is narrowly on toxicology, missing yet again the important broader issues around life-cycle analysis that will determine the circumstances and extent of potential human exposure to nanomaterials.

Moving to the section on business, the stated aim is to have a transparent, integrated, responsible and skilled nanotechnologies industry. I can’t argue with transparent, responsible and skilled, but I wonder whether there’s an inherent contradiction in the idea of an integrated nanotechnologies industry. Maybe the clue as to why the industry is fragmented is in this phrase; the report talks about nanotechnologies, recognising that there are many technologies contained within this category, and it lists a dozen or more markets and sectors in which these technologies are being applied. Given that both the technologies and the markets are so diverse, why would one expect an integrated industry, or even think that is desirable?

The arm of government charged with promoting technological innovation in business and industry is the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), an agency of government which has an arms-length relationship with its sponsoring department, Business, Innovation and Skills. The TSB published its own strategy on nanotechnology last year – Nanoscale Technologies Strategy 2009-2012 (PDF here), and the discussion in the Nanotechnology Strategy draws extensively on this. This makes clear that TSB doesn’t really regard nanotechnology as something to be supported in itself – instead, they expect nanotechnology to contribute, where appropriate, to their challenge-led funding programs – the Fighting Infection through Detection competition is cited as a good example. One very visible funding initiative that TSB is responsible for, that is focused on nano- (and micro-) technologies, is the network of MNT capital facilities (though it should be noted that TSB only inherited this program, which was initiated in the late Department of Trade and Industry before the TSB was formed). It now seems that these facilities will receive little or no dedicated funding in the future; instead they will have to bid for project funding in open competition. There’s a hint that there might be an exception to this. Nanomedicine is an area identified for future investment, and this comment is tantalisingly juxtaposed to a reference to a forthcoming report to BIS from the prominent venture capitalist Hermann Hauser, which is expected to recommend (in a report due out today) that the government funds a handful of centres for translational research, modelled on the German Fraunhofer Institutes. I think it is fair to say, on the basis of reading this and the TSB Nanoscale Technologies Strategy, that TSB is at best ambivalent in its belief in a nanotechnology industry, looking instead for important applications of nanotechnology in a whole variety of different application areas.

The largest chunk of government funding going to nanotechnology in the UK – probably in the region of £40-50 million a year – comes through the research councils, and here the Nanotechnology Strategy is at its weakest. The lead agency for nanotechnology is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and the only initiatives that are mentioned are ones that have already been launched, as part of the minimum fulfillment of the EPSRC’s most recent nanotechnology strategy, published in 2006 (available here as a Word document). It looks like the Research Councils UK priority theme Nanoscale Science: Engineering through Application has run its course, and nanotechnology funding from the research councils in the future will have to come either from standard, responsive mode proposals or as part of the other mission programmes, such as Sustainable Energy Systems, Ageing: lifelong health and wellbeing, or the widely trailed new priority theme Resilient Economy.

Essentially, then, with the exception of a possible new TSB-led initiative in nanomedicine, it looks like there will be no further targeted interventions specifically for nanotechnology in the UK. For this reason, the section in the strategy on public engagement is particularly unsatisfying. We’ve seen a growing consensus about public engagement with science in the UK, which is simply not reflected in this strategy. This is that public engagement mustn’t simply be seen as a way of securing public acquiescence to new technology; instead it should be a genuine dialogue which aims to ensure that innovation is directed at widely accepted societal goals, carried out “upstream”, in the word introduced in an influential report some years ago. But without some upstream innovation to engage with, you can’t have upstream engagement.