Whenever I’m on a long road trip, chomping down on a piece of gum helps me stay awake. I don’t choose gum because it’s bright white or glossy, but because the burst of sweet minty freshness really keeps me going.
Thanks to nanotechnology, I have my choice of brilliant white gum, silky soups, and countless other foods — from crackers to coffee creamers — with futuristic properties that seem to defy nature.
And so do you, though you may not know it.
For over a decade now, tiny ingredients known as nanoparticles have been quietly creeping into our food. Major food companies are investing billions of dollars in nanotechnology to brighten colors, add additional nutrients, thicken liquids, or extend shelf life in processed foods.
Undisclosed by food companies — and unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration — these nanoparticles like titanium dioxide, hydroxyapatite, and zinc oxide are now found in a wide range of foods, supplements, and packaging that Americans come into contact with daily.
Tiny though they are — they’re similar in scale to viruses — these materials pose a potentially huge risk to consumers, workers, and the environment.
Larger versions of these ingredients have been used in food and medicines for decades, and the FDA includes them on a list of materials it says are “generally recognized as safe.” Yet there’s real concern over the tiny scale of nanoparticles. Their physical and chemical properties, including their toxicity, can differ from larger particles of the same material when ingested.
Preliminary studies have found these nanomaterials to be highly toxic both in isolated cells and in animal studies. Yet, as with genetically modified foods, they’ve entered our food supply unregulated, unlabeled, and untested. This makes consumers the lab rats.
Learning how tiny nanoparticles interact with the human body is essential for understanding their potential risks and impacts on human health.
Scientists need to know, for example, if ingested nanoparticles will move through the gastrointestinal tract, be absorbed into the bloodstream, or end up in our liver, kidneys, lungs, spleen, or brain. That’s going to require some long-term studies and careful data analysis that simply hasn’t been done yet.
With any new technology, especially when it comes to the food we’re eating and feeding to our children, we have to be cautious. Scientists and the FDA must find ways to demonstrate the safety of new types of nanoparticles before they’re brought to market.
I’d happily settle for chewing gum that’s less than sparkly white, if it meant scientists had time to study it before I popped it into my mouth.
Michael Stein is the Food Campaigns Manager at Green America (GreenAmerica.org), focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental issues.