As Without So Within… The Promise Perils of NanoTech

As Without, So Within…The Promise & Perils of Nano-Tech

Just as we are starting to get our minds to contemplate infinity and what lies beyond the Big Bang, so to too do we start to grasp the faintest glimmerings of Quantum and the infinitesimally small. Of course the metaphysically minded of us probably know or have some experience of both already, albeit without the scientific trimmings.

We’ve long fantasized about what we could do with the very small. For many, our thoughts immediately go to the amazing and seemingly limitless medical possibilities. Directing healing medications to places hitherto inaccessible and vanishing tumours become realities. The thing about Quantum though is, nobody quite knows for sure what happens there. So we need to have a care…

When it comes to food for example, we may think we know what we’re eating but do we? In the case of pre-packaged and prepared foods, do you? What we don’t know may hurt us as more companies begin researching and using nanotechnology in their food products. While some welcome these efforts as ways to help reduce obesity and improve nutrition, others urge caution as nanoparticles can have unknown and potentially deadly effects on the human body and the corporate record is a concern. As ever it’s up to us to decide whether or not to eat nanofoods. Here are some facts to help decide.

By 2010 there were already more than 180 applications for nanofoods from over 200 different companies. Many of them now appearing on your grocery shelves. Nanofoods are hot research topics for those in the food industry, as they can be more tasty, last longer and even provide greater nutrition. However, the long term effects of these products is not known, at least not well enough to release them into the wider marketplace. For example, there is already a brand of canola cooking oil called Canola Active Oil, a tea called Nanotea and a chocolate diet shake called Nanoceuticals Slim Shake Chocolate.

Some nanotech products use particles that don’t break down in the body, like nanosilver and silica. While foods have been modified for years, many food researchers now urge the FDA to look into nanotechnology applications more carefully. Because these particles don’t break down in the body, they can potentially build up in the system causing health problems. Even if the particles were to pass out of the system, they can wreak havoc on water-based ecosystems. Studies in the UK showed that nano-silicates like those used in toothpaste and ointments stayed in the water unless treated with a substance that caused them to clump together and form a sort of sludge.

There are no warning labels needed on foods that contain nanofoods because health officials believe there is no reason for caution of concern. Consumer advocates are not so certain. They believe that the lack of research on health consequences and long term effects of nanoparticles in food means that there should be labeling allowing consumers to decide for themselves. While cloned or genetically engineered products have caused an uproar with consumers around the world, a lack of awareness and education on the potential hazards has limited the response to widespread nanofood production.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown that nanoparticles pose potential risks to human health; that when nanoparticles are ingested they can cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer and heart and brain disease. While the promise of nanofoods cannot be denied, the risks to human health cannot simply be swept under the rug either. Worse yet, nanoparticles don’t have to be ingested to be dangerous. Studies have also shown that nanoparticles can travel into the body through absorption, meaning you only have to touch nanoparticle-based products to be exposed. Studies show that zinc oxide nanoparticles were toxic to human lung cells in lab tests even at low concentrations while another study demonstrated that nanosilver killed liver and brain cells from rats.

The amount of nanomaterial in foods may be small, but it accumulates with repeated consumption. Nanomaterials are not inert. What will they do when they get in the environment, and what will they do when they get into people, is a good question? The reality is – we don’t know. Some studies have shown nanoparticles have been able to reduce tumors in mice when used in a targeted fashion. What they do when allowed to build up in the body, nobody knows for sure.

Researchers say it’s impossible to know the true number of food and products containing nano particles because statistics are based on self-reporting by companies – and they don’t. Report that is. Consumers could be buying and eating any amount of nanofoods on a daily basis without ever knowing. Current packaging doesn’t require the manufacturer to say whether a food contains nanoparticles or not so consumers are in no position to make an informed choice. And nanofoods aren’t going away anytime soon. Given the silence and the lack of figures it is hard to say but today, in 2015, it’s estimated over 40% of food products are now nanotechnology-based. A worrying possibility if true, as the effects are unknown.

Even non-nanofoods may contain nanoparticles as those used in food packaging might leach into food or beverages. Apples, pears, peppers, cucumbers and other fruit and vegetables are being coated with a thin, wax-like nanocoating to extend shelf-life by enhancing color and flavor in the products. Consumers believe they’re getting healthy, natural foods but may inadvertently be consuming nanoparticles. As the nanopackaging industry grows, consumers can expect to see more and more nano-products on shelves, while its effects on human health remain unknown.

Nanoparticles have many properties that make them potentially dangerous and hard to control. Nanoparticles, like those used in foods, have an incredibly high surface area to mass ratio giving them some unexpected and strange properties that may not be beneficial to humans consuming them. For instance, they can be absorbed directly in the bloodstream, they can enter cell mitochondria and cross cell membranes, they can cross the blood-brain barrier, they have a high temperature tolerance and are incredibly strong. Last but not least, they require only minute amounts to have an effect.

Officially the FDA says that there is no risk from nano-enhanced foods, despite many in its people point to studies that plainly show otherwise. Quite naturally people can become unhappy and suspicious when prevented from knowing what’s actually in their foods. A lesson that the FDA, Monsanto and a number of other F&B majors might do well to take to heart with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMO).

By 2010 already 20 of the world’s largest food manufacturers had in-house nanofood labs. This includes well-known names like Nestle, Hershey, Cargill, Campbell’s Soup, Sara Lee, and Heinz. But you don’t hear about it. They want to keep it quiet. New York Times author Andrew Schneider reveals that five years ago manufacturer Kraft was gung-ho about their nanotech innovations, proudly touted them in press releases. Yet today, the company denies any nanotech research occurs in their labs, stating they have no products or packaging that use nanotech. Of course, consumers have no way of being sure that this is true. And, if it is true, why not? The silence is deafening.

The question must be, why? What do they want to hide?

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