For centuries, it was the cook and the heat of the fire that cajoled taste, texture, flavor and aroma from the pot. Today, that culinary voodoo is being crafted by white-coated scientists toiling in pristine labs, rearranging atoms into chemical particles never before seen.
At last year’s Institute of Food Technologists international conference, nanotechnology was the topic that generated the most buzz among the 14,000 food-scientists, chefs and manufacturers crammed into an Anaheim, Calif., hall. Though it’s a word that has probably never been printed on any menu, and probably never will, there was so much interest in the potential uses of nanotechnology for food that a separate daylong session focused just on that subject was packed to overflowing.
In one corner of the convention center, a chemist, a flavorist and two food-marketing specialists clustered around a large chart of the Periodic Table of Elements (think back to high school science class). The food chemist, from China, ran her hands over the chart, pausing at different chemicals just long enough to say how a nano-ized version of each would improve existing flavors or create new ones.
One of the marketing guys questioned what would happen if the consumer found out.
The flavorist asked whether the Food and Drug Administration would even allow nanoingredients.
Posed a variation of the latter question, Dr. Jesse Goodman, the agency’s chief scientist and deputy commissioner for science and public health, gave a revealing answer. He said he wasn’t involved enough with how the FDA was handling nanomaterials in food to discuss that issue. And the agency wouldn’t provide anyone else to talk about it.
This despite the fact that hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown that nanoparticles pose potential risks to human health — and, more specifically, that when ingested can cause DNA damage that can prefigure cancer and heart and brain disease.
Despite Denials, Nano-Food Is Here
Officially, the FDA says there aren’t any nano-containing food products currently sold in the U.S.
Not true, say some of the agency’s own safety experts, pointing to scientific studies published in food science journals, reports from foreign safety agencies and discussions in gatherings like the Institute of Food Technologists conference.
In fact, the arrival of nanomaterial onto the food scene is already causing some big-chain safety managers to demand greater scrutiny of what they’re being offered, especially with imported food and beverages. At a conference in Seattle last year hosted by leading food safety attorney Bill Marler, presenters raised the issue of how hard it is for large supermarket companies to know precisely what they are purchasing, especially with nanomaterials, because of the volume and variety they deal in.
Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for safety for Costco, says his chain does not test for nanomaterial in the food products it is offered by manufacturers. But, he adds, Costco is looking “far more carefully at everything we buy. … We have to rely on the accuracy of the labels and the integrity of our vendors. Our buyers know that if they find nanomaterial or anything else they might consider unsafe, the vendors either remove it, or we don’t buy it.”