Imagine if food scientists had the ability to take sodium and reduce the size of its particles. If that were possible, then a beverage might not need as much sodium to achieve a desired taste profile. The ability to create smaller particles is just one of the possible applications that nano-scale science and technology hopes to bring to the beverage and food industries.
The most straight-forward definition of nanotechnology is controlling matter between 1 and 100 nanometers. One nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter. To understand what that means in terms of size, the width of a one human hair is 50,000 nanometers.
Many applications are possible for nano-scale science and technology in the beverage and food industries, and they fall into four major areas: ingredient technology and systems, processing, safety and quality, and packaging.
In the area of quality, nano-scale science and technology can help formulators better include micro- or macro-nutrients ingredients, such as flavors, colors, proteins and vitamins that may alter the properties of the liquid or cause it to be cloudy.
“If we had the ability to minimize the particle size down to the nano-level, it is very likely that you can have a clear beverage and still have the taste and the mouthfeel of maybe even milk,” says John Floros, Institute of Food Technologists spokesperson and department head and professor for Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Food Science.
In regard to ingredient technology, one advantage of using nano-sized particles instead of micro-sizes particles is that some nutrients the human body needs are bioactive when they are part of a food matrix, but when formulators try to add ingredients like vitamins, antioxidants, iron and other micro-nutrients back into a product, many times the ingredients are no longer bioactive.
“What nanotechnology may help us with is to make that bioavailability higher, so the body can actually absorb those micronutrients or those compounds, and therefore they can have the effect that we intended for them to have,” he says.
In terms of food processing, nano-scale science and technology allows food scientists to create membranes for separating components that are much more effective and efficient than those currently being used, Floros says. For example, the same way food scientists learned to separate the fat from milk, they might be able to separate other parts from the liquid and create new and potentially healthier products.
Nano-scale science and technology also offers the opportunity to create sensors that could allow for different types of detection. For example, a beverage packaged in a bottle could have sensors incorporated into the package that could provide information about the product beyond what is available through the product code, such as data about the product’s shelf life and where the ingredients came from. Researchers also are working on packages that have the ability to detect a microbial presence in a product, and then use anti-microbial nanotechnology-based materials to counteract the pathogens.
Nano-scale science and technology also assists beverage packaging. Nano-sized particles, along with the materials available today, can be used together to create new materials. For example, materials could be made stronger and then fewer materials would need to be used, Floros says. It also could create materials that have better barrier properties to oxygen and light.
Nano-science and consumers
While many of these applications could be possible in the near future, companies have been shying away from publicizing the use of nano-scale science and technology. Many companies are scared of consumer perception, and think consumers may have the same adverse reaction to nano-scale science and technology as they did to genetically engineered foods, Floros says.
“In my mind, those are completely two different things,” he says. “What we need to do with the consumer is to show the benefits and be upfront with some of the risks, if there are any risks, and really have a way to regulate and have our regulatory agencies knowledgeable enough to make decisions.”
In the United States, the FDA Nanotechnology Task Force, formed in August 2006, was charged with determining regulatory approaches that encourage the continued development of innovative, safe and effective FDA-regulated products that use nanotechnology materials. The Task Force aimed to identify any knowledge or policy gaps that exist so as to better enable the agency to evaluate possible adverse health effects.
While nano-scale science and technology applications in beverages and foods may take a while to commercialize, applications in packaging are already available. It is likely that some beverages and foods already are using nano-scale science and technology in some form, as many of them already were working with encapsulated ingredients, Floros says. BI