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Engineered Nanoparticles in Food - Are They Dangerous?

Updated on April 20, 2015

Copyright 2012 -Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

This article may not be reproduced or reprinted elsewhere online or offline without written consent of the author.

If you are like me, you may not have realized that nanoparticles have been added unknowingly to many of our consumer products and materials that food comes into contact with.

Engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) have been one of the fastest growing markets in the last decade. Nanomaterials can occur naturally, they can be produced unintentionally, e.g. some exhausts, and they can be created or engineered.

ENPs are now being used or will soon be used in everything from computers, medical products and procedures, food, and consumer products.

How small these engineered particles?

Nanotechnology has been defined by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative as: "the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers".

To put the size further into perspective:

  • a red blood cell is roughly 7,000 nanometers wide
  • a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers wide
  • a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick

ENPs in consumer products are currently unregulated

As early as 2003, nanotechnology was recognized as a $7.6 billion dollar business.

By 2008, the industry exploded to more than $166 billion worth of consumer products were produced that contained nanoparticles. The market is expected to reach over $263 billion by this year.

Nanoparticles can currently be found the following consumer products categories:

  • cleaning solutions and agents
  • antimicrobial products
  • foam and waxes
  • lubricants
  • personal hygiene products
  • food packaging
  • clothing
  • cosmetics
  • sunscreens
  • dietary supplements
  • electronics
  • sporting goods

The question is do you know whether any of the above products you are currently using in these categories contain nanoparticles? Most likely not. The industry has been unregulated.

“It is unacceptable that the FDA continues to allow unregulated and unlabeled nanomaterials to be used in products consumers use every day...”

-Wenoach Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch

In recent weeks, a historic lawsuit has been filed against the FDA concerning the risks of nanotechnology in consumer products. The petition, filed by several groups, accuses the FDA for not responding in an adequate manner to a 2006 petition that demanded products containing nanoparticles be safety tested and labeled for consumers.

Currently, companies are not required to disclose that information nor has there been safety testing to insure that these particles are safe when consumers are exposed to them.

What is your current level nanoparticle exposure?

At this point, it's unkown.

Your skin is the largest organ of the body and your skins cells have the ability to absorb small nanoproducts that it comes in contact with. It has been widely recognized that many of these particles may be potential toxic - most have not been tested.

One known example of nanoparticle toxicity is "nano zinc oxide".

Engineered zinc oxide, found in suncreens, is a nanoparticle that has been shown to be toxic to colon cells in small amounts. There is a potential toxic risk for children that may, by accident, ingest zinc oxide (perhaps by licking fingers that touched parts of the body that had suncreen on it). The health implications may not be seen or may not manifest until years later.


Nanoparticles in our food chain

Beyond direct exposure, there are concerns about nanoparticles traveling up the food chain.

Imagine a scenario in which products containing nanomaterials have been discarded or washed down drains, those could then end up in water sources that may feed cattle, or other animals and crops that are lower in our food chain. Eventually these have the potential of making their way into our food sources. Nanopesticides have been on the market for awhile but are only recently undergoing EPA review.

Nanoparticles coming to YOUR processed foods

In the meantime, as this lawsuit is being considered, the technology in the food industry is marching forward.

Companies are hiring scientists and engineers to create nanoparticles that will make your food last longer on the shelf, taste better, and be more resilient microbes.

Beyond that, imagine foods that can be tracked, monitored, and traced by the nanoparticles they have been engineered to contain - that's all in the works.

Are we ready for these nano advances?

Not all nanotechnology advances are bad, and there will certainly be some good coming out of it (check out the YouTube video). But there are still many unanswered questions and so much that has not been tested yet.

So you have to perhaps ask yourself...

Are you comfortable not knowing which foods contain engineered particles?

And are you comfortable knowing that nanoparticles that already exist in our consumer products and food packaging have not been tested for toxicity and human safety?

Comments below are encouraged!

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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @vespawoolf - excellent question. There are so many technologies that started with good intentions but the long term effects good or bad cannot be calculated.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 5 years ago from Peru, South America

      This information on nanoparticles reminds me of Oppenheimer. The technology of his invention wasn't intended for destruction, but that's what happened. Nanoparticles have useful applications, but the outcome is frightening. Deviating from what is natural is often harmful to our bodies and health. Although regulation is necessary, will it really stop the effects that await future generations?

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Thanks, Kris, for the additional info. I hope you'll keep us updated on this most interesting topic.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @ LL Woodard - that's a very good question (food being traced with nanoparticles). Right now, chemists are working on traceable nanoparticles that are tagged fluorescence. One of the applications they are looking at it is being able to trace the time release of drugs in the body using tagged nanoparticles - when the drug is release, the wavelength of fluorescence changes and can be monitored. How this traceability will be applied to food is still unclear in an infancy stage. One thing that is being worked on is using traceable nanoparticles in food to monitor food safety. Here's a link to an abstract that some might find useful:

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Kris, thanks for this easy to understand heads-up on nanoparticles. Dear gosh, isn't there already enough stuff in foods that haven't been proven to be safe without this type of science?

      When you say that the industry is working on nanoparticles that will be traceable, does that mean science will be able to find these particles in the humans who have eaten them?

      Voted up and Shared.

    • profile image

      lalala 6 years ago


    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @molemeter - thanks for adding to the conversation. You always have wonderful insight!

      Sadly, I think part of the problem is there's too much coming too fast (in the way of discoveries and technology) and the entities that regulate and monitor for safety can't keep up.

      And as you eluded to, no company wants to put the money into research to discover if there are any long term consequences.

      It's the "just do it" and worry about potential consequences later approach. We the consumers and the environment are often the ones that suffer.

      I completely agree,there needs to be more common sense and those that are hired in positions to legislate, regulate or monitor shouldn't be former corporate lobbyists, etc. And there should be more disclosure on what is in products.

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Kris,

      Well done on another great hub.

      This is shocking news.

      All the more so when we know what has happened in the past with certain compounds.

      Thalidomide for one.

      How is this still possible?

      We have known for decades now, that when new technologies arrive, the regulators are always to slow to protect the public.

      Surely it is time that we legislate against letting these particular genies out of the lab before we know the longer term effects.

      I am not saying we shouldn't research, just use our common sense more.

      I know the argument is going to be, that research companies need to recoup investments.

      Maybe we are going about scientific research in completely the wrong way?

      We are happily slapping sunscreen on our kids and ourselves and could be giving ourselves all sorts of problems in the future?

      Voted up useful information and interesting. Sharing socially.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      I have heard of this technolgy being used in various medicines but not in foods. It is a bit alarming to hear how it is so much more widespread than I thought. I agree that there may be some benefits to it but it is unknown. I also agree with you on the use of sunscreen. It is more harmful to the skin than good in general. Thank you for sharing this information and it is one that I will keep in my library for future reference. Voted up!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Melovy - thanks for stopping by. It's definitely not an easy topic to follow. Nanoparticles are so small, it's hard to conceptualize them and how they are made. But it's definitely going to be something we hear more and more about. The applications are endless - good or bad.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 6 years ago from UK

      Very interesting and useful information. There is so much that we tinker with these days that really we don’t know what the long term effects will be, including nano particles. I can’t say I fully understand this, and your article is very helpful. Thanks for shedding light on this subject.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 6 years ago

      I avoid sunscreens because of the nanoparticles. Plus sunscreen blocks the body's own production of vitamin D. I think the risk of vitamin D deficiencies and the harm from nano-particles is greater than the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure -- as long as you make sure you don't stay out for your skin to get burn.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 6 years ago from Hawaii

      Wow, I'd never heard of these. It is really nice to hear about food issues from a rational, scientific perspective, not just "It's bad, mmmkay." Thanks!

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 6 years ago from SE MA

      Have you seen that picture of a cell trying to ingest a nanorod? They get fooled by the small tip and try to envelop it, which they can't do because it's too long, and end up impaling themselves.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @gypsy rose lee - I'm curious too if you have them there as well - keep us posted if you find out!

      @alocsin - I'm glad you were able to learn about ENPs here - thanks for stopping by and voting!

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Didn't know about EPNs so thanks for the headsup. It's good to hear from a scientist on this matter. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 6 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Thanks for the info on nanoparticles. Will have to find out if we have them here in our products too. We have enough bad ingredients in products already we don't need more. Voted up!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @chefsref - thanks for stopping by and I checked out some of your hubs. Looking forward to following more of them.

      It's so sad that so many of our society's health problems today and health problems "still to come" are caused by our quest for cheap, fast, and processed foods. The long term affects are scary. A lot new research reveals that the damage from poor nutrition and and chemical exposure can often trickle down through several generations.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 6 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Kris

      I write a bit about our food supply and this aspect escaped my attention, so, thanx for the heads up.

      By and large our entire food chain has been co-opted by big agribusiness with genetic engineering, pesticides and, and. The list seems to be endless but you and I are no more than guinea pigs. Kids growing up today have little access to real food that is unadulterated by business. 30 or 40 years from now they will be discovering which foods they grew up with are making them ill.

      But hey, it's cheap and profitable for business.

      Things will only get worse if the promoters of ignorance succeed in disabling the agencies that should be protecting us.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @ananceleste, DonnaC, Pcunix, picklesandrufys - thanks for the comments and adding to the discussion!

      It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. It kind of mirrors the genetically modified organism debate and battle. From a scientist's standpoint, I find all of these biological and science advances very fascinating and it's cool technology...BUT, just because we can do it doesn't mean that it's harmless or that it should be capitalized on if it eventually has profound negative affects on the food chain and/or create serious health issues. And sadly, some scientists will often push the outer limits, falsify data, or even claim something is safe just to stay funded.

    • picklesandrufus profile image

      picklesandrufus 6 years ago from Virginia Beach, Va

      I am a signature on the petition going to the FDA. We absolutely have the right to know what is in our food and anything else that could cause harm. Great article!!vote up

    • Pcunix profile image

      Tony Lawrence 6 years ago from SE MA

      Underfunded and the jackass GOP candidates will want to underfund it more or kill it outright.

    • DonnaCosmato profile image

      Donna Cosmato 6 years ago from USA

      It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry over one more pollutant to the food supply and more overall exposure to harmful elements. I had not heard of engineered nanoparticles; thanks for raising my consciousness on this subject.

    • ananceleste profile image

      Anan Celeste 6 years ago from California

      Thank you for talking about this topic. Not many people pay attention to these things. Kudos!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @cookwarebliss - I agree, it's scary. And the FDA is swamped and probably underfunded so I can see why so much of this goes to market without any third party, unbiased, research.

    • CookwareBliss profile image

      CookwareBliss 6 years ago from Winneconne, WI

      Very interesting article, and a little scary when you think about it.


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