Ayes and nays to nano food

The implications could be significant in combating the spread of health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. However, experts say nanotechnology’s future in food could be thwarted before it gets started by a reluctance among food manufacturers fearful of the kind of European consumer backlash that greeted genetically modified (GM) food to be open about what they are doing.

They say this refusal to communicate could foster the same mistrust that led GM to be branded “Frankenstein food” in many parts of Europe and could mean some of nano food’s potential remains unfulfilled for years.

“What the food industry is doing in research labs is looking at new possibilities of creating new products, and they’re using the toolbox of nanotechnology to do that,” said Frans Kampers, who coordinates research on food nanotechnology at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands.

“But I think the industry should be more open. It should show what could come onto the market within the next two or three years, because if we don’t prepare society for these products we may be throwing away all these opportunities.”
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at the nano scale — one thousand millionth of a metre — which, among other things, may be used to alter when, how and where in our bodies food is digested.

The global market for nanotechnology in food was $140 million in 2006 and is expected to balloon to $5.6 billion in 2012.
British lawmakers expressed concern that not enough research is being done into potential nano food risks, and frustration about the food sector’s lack of communication.
Scientists at Britain’s Institute of Food Research (IFR) said last month they had found an unexpected synergy that helped break down fat and might lead to new ways of slowing digestion, and ultimately to creating foods that made consumers feel fuller.

Slowing digestion
“Much of the fat in processed foods is eaten in the form of emulsions such as soups, yoghurt, ice cream and mayonnaise,” said IFR’s Peter Wilde. “We are unpicking the mechanisms of digestion used to break them down so we can design fats in a rational way that are digested more slowly.”

The idea is that if digestion is slower, the final section of the intestine called the ileum will be put on its “ileal brake”, sending a signal to the consumer that means they feel full even though they have eaten less fat.

Experts see promise in another nano technique which involves encapsulating nutrients in bubble-like structures known as vesicles that can be engineered to break down and release their contents at specific stages in the digestive system.

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