Last year, the Nano4Food 2006' conference was held at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Organised by Cientifica in association with the Netherlands Consulate General Office in Miami, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), and the Wageningen Bionanotechnology Centre in the Netherlands, this conference focused on opportunities to apply nanotechnology to food and food products, advances that have been made to bring nanotechnology to the forefront, and the challenges that must be faced in introducing commercial products containing nanotechnology components.

Former IFT Chairperson, Ann Hollingsworth, president of Better Built Foods, was one of the opening speakers for the conference. She highlighted some of the major focus areas for nanotechnology in the food industry: quality, safety, and packaging. Building on this theme, she discussed ongoing interests in such application opportunities as vitamin and nutrient delivery systems; nanolaminates as a moisture barrier and to carry colour, flavour, and antioxidants; liposomes to protect and deliver enzymes, antimicrobials and anti-browning agents; nanosensors to increase food safety and defence; and nanopackaging materials to enhance film barrier properties and to add active or smart properties for tracking and enhancing shelf life.

She then focused on some of the questions and concerns of the food industry with regard to employing nanotechnology.

Is it safe?

First and foremost were safety concerns focused on whether nanotechnology additives were GRAS (generally regarded as safe) to consume, if there were any potential workplace safety issues resulting from handling nanoparticles, and whether or not there were potential environmental impact concerns related to manufacturing operations that employ nanocomponents.

Next were consumer acceptance concerns, particularly in light of recent biotech syndrome' fears that surfaced with the introduction of genetically modified food products.

Finally, she focused on regulatory issues; namely, is there a clear mechanism for approving the use of nanotechnology in products and what, if any, labelling will be required?

Where will it lead?

Some of the other more notable presentations focused on emerging new nanoparticle products with food application potential.

One concentrated on exploiting nanotechnology to improve separation techniques in removing water from food products, extracting components to produce new ingredients and enhance traditional food performance, removing solids, de-emulsification and removing impurities. Examples included discussions of nanowires, nanomagnets and carbon nanotubes.

Utilising smart nanomaterials to preserve and prolong the shelf life of food and to track products was the focus of another presentation. Examples included discussions of a thin film nanostructure that can be applied to fruit and vegetables to reduce spoilage mechanisms, nanopowders which improve barrier layer performance in food and beverage packaging and nanotags/nanobarcodes for tracking products through distribution and delivery to customers.

Finally, the concept was introduced of using nanodelivery devices to control the release of nutrients and vitamins in food products. Examples included nano-based nutraceutical delivery mechanisms that strategically release encapsulated compounds based on exposure to specific digestive enzymes in the mouth, stomach or intestines.

We hear a lot about how nanotechnology will change our lives dramatically. But what does the term mean and what role could it play in the food industry of the future?