"Nanofoods" Offer Big Flavor, Low Fat, Stealth Vitamins

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
February 23, 2009
Imagine potato chips with all the flavor but far less sodium. Or fish oil-enriched bread that doesn't taste the least bit fishy.

These are just two ways nanotechnology is poised to enter grocery stores, a group of food scientists said at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The potato chips would use "nanosalt"—plain-old salt crystals, only smaller, said Qasim Chaudhry, a toxicologist at Britain's Central Science Laboratory in York, England.

Together the microscopic grains have more surface area, milligram for milligram, than larger, conventional salt crystals. That means more contact with your tongue, resulting in a disproportionately salty sensation.

The same principle, Chaudhry said, applies to a type of mayonnaise currently under development in Europe.

Normal mayonnaise's tiny oil droplets add rich texture and taste. Nano-mayo instead substitutes the oil with water droplets thinly coated with oil. The result: lower fat but full flavor.

(Related: "Nanotech: The Tiny Science Is Big, and Getting Bigger")

Breaded Fish

Nanotech can also be used to enrich a wide range of foods with tiny, tasteless capsules of vitamins, minerals, or health supplements.

Bread, for example, could be enhanced with heart-friendly fish oil.

Normally, that would make the bread taste, well, fishy. But with nano-supplements, "you can encapsulate it and give all the health benefits without the flavor," Chaudhry said.

In China, he added, nano forms of selenium have been used to enrich green tea to combat deficiencies in some parts of the country.

More radical is the possibility of making a low-fat milkshake by coating microscopic grains of silica, a sand-like mineral, with chocolate.

The silica doesn't have any calories, and the tiny amount of chocolate is all on the surface. "When it hits the taste buds, you have huge flavor," Chaudhry said.

Not Ready for Lunch

Hermann Stamm of the European Commission's Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, appreciates nanofoods as a "nutritional miracle."

But he warned that the body may react differently to nanoparticles than to conventional ingredients.

Because the particles are so small, they may be able to penetrate the gut more easily. This is good for vitamins or minerals but perhaps not so good for preservatives or other synthetic chemicals.

Once in the bloodstream, nanoparticles may be able to enter cells in a wide range of organs, with unknown effects.

Even vitamins and minerals might rush into the bloodstream too quickly, causing overdoses, warned Elke Anklam, also of the Joint Research Center.

Safe Applications

Right now nobody knows much about the safety of these products, said T. Scott Thurmond, a regulatory toxicologist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

"It is still pretty much a crapshoot," Thurmond said. "We need to be proactive and take a look at this now to avoid any potential problems down the road."

Some nanofood products, like nanosalt, are probably safe. That's because, once the salt dissolves, nanosalt is nothing special. "It will behave like normal salt from then onward," the Central Science Laboratory's Chaudhry said.

And the fat-coated water droplets in nano-mayonnaise are likely to be safely broken apart in the gut, he said.

The Joint Research Center's Anklam agreed that anything likely to be fully digested probably poses little risk. "And we should really enjoy the mayonnaise having less fat."

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