The famous artist Leonardo da Vinci once offered the following pearl of wisdom: “Study the art of science and the science of art.” It is advice that food scientists have taken to heart in spades. However, as a result of advances in the new emerging field of nanotechnology—which is briefly defined as manipulating atoms at the molecular level in order to make new products—scientists and other food professionals will now be required to apply their understanding of science to a level that is so infinitesimally small that it is hard to grasp. One nanometer is roughly 100,000 times thinner than a human hair.
But to professionals in a field where it is not uncommon that a pinch of a spice or a few extra seconds of heat to an ingredient can make the difference between a good meal and a great one, it will be important to understand that at the nanoscale the weird world of quantum mechanics kicks in and materials and ingredients begin to manifest entirely new characteristics, and it is scientists ability to manipulate these new and enhanced characteristics that lies at the heart of the fields ability to transform virtually every aspect of food. (For a good, short primer, I recommend this recent article describing Nestle’s use of nanotechnology to create foods with optimal stability, nutrient delivery, flavors and aromas.)
A New Shaper Knife
Today, the food scientist must concern him or herself with issues of health and nutrition, good and bad fats, sanitation, packaging and, of course, pairings, aromas, textures, sensations and flavors. The ability to apply modern science to culinary problems in these latter areas has sometimes called ”molecular gastronomy.” Nanotechnology will require culinlogists to take this skill to a new—and smaller—level.
Given nanotechnology’s immense potential, it is not surprising that over half of the top ten food companies in the world, including Campbells, ConAgra, General Mills, H.J. Heinz, Kraft Foods, Nestle, PepsiCo, Sara Lee and Unilever, are all investing heavily in the field. Their reason is simple: they all understand that by manipulating materials, packaging and food stuffs at the molecular level they can teach old food products new tricks. To this end, Cientifica, a European-based nanotechnology research firm, estimates that the value of all food products incorporating nanotechnology will soar 14-fold from $410 million in 2007 to $5.8 billion by 2012.
To many people, though, nanotechnology sounds as if it were still a far-off, fuzzy, futuristic technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. A number of real world nanotechnology-enhanced products are presently on the market and they are being utilized by savvy companies and chefs to gain a competitive advantage. To use a simple and appropriate metaphor, nanotechnology is creating a sharper knife. (In fact, Apollo Diamond has now manufactured a low-cost, high-quality synthetic diamond that could potentially be used to manufacture a sharper, longer-lasting knife.)
At a more immediate level, Honeywell and others have created new nanomaterials that allow packaging to keep food fresher for a longer period of time. By tweaking the molecular structure of the plastic, scientists have created an almost impenetrable barrier through which oxygen molecules cannot navigate.
BASF has created self-cleaning nanomaterials which are being used in both kitchens and in clothing to imbue sinks and uniforms with self-cleaning properties. And a company called Aspen Aerogels has created a new nanomaterial that has eight times the thermal insulation properties of the best material currently on the market. The implication is that if storage and packaging companies begin using the material, their products will be significantly fresher when they ultimately reach the kitchen.
In addition to nanomaterials, nanoparticles are also having a big impact on the food industry. For years, the anti-bacterial properties of silver have been well understood, but when silver is ground into nanoscopic particles these benefits are magnified due to their huge surface-to-area ratio. Some strawberry growers are already using these silver nanoparticles to keep their product free of fungal growth for an extended period of time.
And still another company, OilFresh, has figured out how to employ a new nanoceramic material to keep frying oil fresher. Beyond its immediate money-saving benefit (kitchens use about half as much as oil as they normally do), the device, which only costs $299 and can be easily installed and cleaned, also improves the final quality of the product because the oil stays more uniform throughout the cooking process. It even allows users to switch back-and-forth from seafood to meat without creating any carryover flavor. More importantly, because the device directs oxygen away from the oil and prevents the oil from clumping, it allows users to switch from hydrogenated products to healthier vegetable oils.
Tailored to Your Taste and Touch
As noteworthy as these advances are, the future of the food industry doesn’t simply reside in better packaging, self-cleaning knives, fresher strawberries or even healthier french fries. It rests in creating food that is personalized to the individual user.
To some extent advances in radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and nanosensors are providing people to more information about their food than ever before. For instance, in Japan RFID tags allow consumers to track from which herd and farm a piece of beef came from; to what that cow ate and whether it was administered any antibiotics; down to the date the animal was slaughtered and how long the product was in transit before it finally reached the grocery shelf.
As nanotechnology continues to make RFID tags smaller, better and cheaper, the type and number of products capable of being traced to this level of specificity will increase exponentially. It is even likely that the RFID chips of the future will contain a molecular diagnostic component that can rapidly assess any product for the presence of any disease, including E. coli, salmonella, Listeria or Campylobacter.
Alas, such advances are merely passive in nature. They allow consumers to know a more about their food and make better informed decisions; but such advances still fall well short of the vision of personalized food. Nevertheless, this is where things are headed.
Nutralease, a nanotechnology company in Israel, is now developing and selling nutraceuticals that are embedded directly in food products to deliver improved health results. Nanoparticles of lycopene, which is known to lower the risk of breast and prostate cancer, as well as nanoparticles of phytosterol, which is found in canola oil and is effective in lowering cholesterol, are now being sold to food companies for the express purpose of creating healthier products.
Still other companies are exploring the possibility of using dendrimers, which are synthetic nanoscale devices upon which any number of different molecules can be attached. Think of the nanoscale device as being a super tiny wine rack that contains an almost limitless number of different wines. But instead of just complimenting any meal, each molecule can be made to do something different. For instance, one molecule can imbue a food product with new aroma; another can modify the texture; and a third might deliver a cholesterol-lowering molecule directly to the consumer’s artery.
Longer-term, researchers in the field of nanotechnology are even hoping to develop foods which are personalized to the tastes and health conditions of individual people. The technology would work by wrapping individual molecules with a neutral coating—much like a coated M&M. Only instead of these different coated molecules all doing the same thing, each would perform a different function depending on its color.
The trick, of course, is to get each M&M to perform on cue, and nanotechnology researchers are attempting to address this issue by applying different levels of heat or light to each individually coated molecule prior to consumption such that if a consumer preferred a sweeter taste only the “green” coatings would absolve. If, on the other hand, a person preferred a sour taste, only the “red” coatings would melt away to release their inner content.
Nanotechnologists are even on the verge of figuring out how to release nutraceuticals and drug molecules in the presence of specific health markers. In this way, lycopene nanoparticles might only be triggered if a genetic marker for breast cancer was found or, alternatively, phytosterol would be released only if a protein marker indicative of a heart problem were found.
Only a Matter of Time
The benefits of nanotechnology are many, but the field will advance slowly if for no other reason that people have a strong personal and cultural bond with the food they eat. Moreover, many consumers are rightly leery of putting things into their body’s for which the long-term implications are only partially understood. The concern over genetically modified organisms is an excellent case-in-point.
The government, food companies and scores of academic researchers are investing aggressively in an attempt to address these concerns, and it will take some time for all of the issues to be addressed, but as they are the many unique benefits of nanotechnology will also become better known. As they do, food professionals can expect to be hearing a lot more about nanotechnology in the coming years. It is a small science but it will have a big impact on the entire food industry.