In the next five years, dozens of food and agricultural products based on nanotechnology may come to market, including a chocolate milkshake that supposedly tastes better and is more nutritious than conventional shakes and chicken-feed additives that can remove dangerous germs from poultry intended for human consumption.
However, some investigators think more research needs to be done on the environmental, health and safety risks posed by nutritional nanotechnology.
One group's findings were detailed in a report released Thursday by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
"This should serve as a wake-up call," researcher Jennifer Kuzma, a biochemist and risk policy expert at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, told LiveScience. "We have an opportunity to see what is in the future and to focus on health and safety research now."
Nanotechnology deals with construction blocks only nanometers — billionths of a meter — large, much smaller than wavelengths of visible light. At that scale, ordinary substances can take on properties radically different than those found in their bulk counterparts.
For instance, while gold is normally chemically inert — which keeps gold rings lustrous even as iron rusts and brass tarnishes — gold nanoparticles can prove highly reactive.
Nanotechnology takes advantage of these novel traits for use in a wide and growing range of applications — but it's not clear whether nanoparticles, nanotubes and other nanoscale components might have unforeseen consequences for humans or the environment.
For example, data is conflicting about whether carbon nanotubes are highly toxic, or perfectly safe.
To see what products might be coming down the pipeline, Kuzma and her research assistant Peter VerHage, supplemented by data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, analyzed federally funded research and development projects oriented toward food and agriculture.
The U.S. government invests about $1.2 billion annually on nanotechnology research.
Kuzma and VerHage discovered 160 such projects, and think that more than 30 could produce commercially viable applications within the next five years.
As for the rest, most of them have the potential to generate a commercial product in the next 15 years, they added.
Most of the projects are focused on the food industry. Examples include wrappers that can detect whether or not food is safe to eat and nanomaterials aimed at enhancing the biological activity of dietary supplements.
Kuzma and VerHage also found several agricultural projects, including some which focused on developing nanomaterials to neutralize pollutants and others that dealt with building extremely sensitive devices to monitor how water flows through farmlands.
"What concerns me," said Kuzma, "is that there is not enough information on the toxicity of some nanomaterials mentioned with regard to food and agriculture — for instance, carbon nanotubes, or silver or titanium dioxide nanoparticles."
One project proposes to use carbon nanotubes on the surfaces of milk pasteurization equipment to prevent the equipment from getting fouled.
"I don't know whether that's a good idea or not," she said. "That's the point. We don't have enough information as a society to decide that.
"The most important aspect of the database we created is that anyone can search it, to help people think about the future and anticipate policy and risk issues," she added.
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