by Claudia S. Copeland, Ph.D.

What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is among the hottest words in tech development today, but it’s often used without understanding its full implications. Nanotechnology — technology focused on the manipulation of matter at the nanoscale — allows the creation and manipulation of novel materials using molecules between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm) in size. While often associated with industries like electronics, nanotechnology in consumer products extends far beyond ultra-slim phones and wearable devices. Nanotech, in fact, encompasses a very wide range of applications, and among the most exciting of these are new approaches in the preparation of foods, beverages and other consumables.

Consumption Nanotechnology

Consumption nanotechnology is the application of nanotechniques to enhance foods — including gums and mints; to infuse beverages with fat-soluble vitamins or cannabinoids; to achieve the most efficient blending in lotions and powders; and in gel capsules to improve drug delivery and/or protect drugs against degradation. Of course, people have been using traditional techniques to do these things for millennia. For example, olive oil and vinegar can be mixed by simply shaking them together in a bottle or by adding a traditional emulsifier such as lecithin.  So, why bother with nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology: Taking Food and Beverage Science to the Next Level

Nanotechniques in food and beverage science are focused on incorporating, protecting and delivering these functional ingredients in the best possible way for the consumer.  For example, if a sports beverage has been enhanced with vitamins, the manufacturer will want to make sure that those vitamins confer maximum health benefits to the consumer.

Nanotechnology can enhance delivery through a number of different techniques. One example is polymeric micelles, which are like tiny bubbles that are oily on the inside but watery on the outside, so that they can encapsulate oily molecules to allow them to dissolve in water. Liposomes, on the other hand, are rather the opposite: oily on the outside and watery on the inside, for carrying water-soluble particles across a fatty barrier or dissolving them in an oily environment. Edible coatings can preserve the quality of fresh foods during storage, and hydrogels can protect sensitive chemicals, such as drugs inside capsules, from environmental harm.  Finally, nanoemulsions can help functional ingredients mix when they normally would separate: They can help fat-soluble vitamins to dissolve in water, or allow drugs to be carried from the outside of the skin to deeper layers where they are needed.

Pros of Consumption Nanotechnology

To summarize some of the many pros of consumption nanotechnology:

  • Nanotechnology allows chemicals that are not water-soluble to dissolve in water. These include fat-soluble ingredients such as oils, vitamins, CBD and THC.
  • Nanotechnology can improve the body’s absorption of fat-soluble drugs or ingredients. Improved absorption means enhanced bioavailability: The more of a substance you absorb, the more of that substance is available to have an effect on your body. (If a substance “goes right through you” without being absorbed, you will not experience the benefits of the substance.  Better absorption means more of it is available to be used by your body.)
  • Nanotechnology can improve the biological availability of nutrients by encapsulating and protecting them so they are not destroyed by the body (e.g., by stomach acid) on their way to their targeted organ.
  • Nanotechnology can improve the appearance of a product. For example, a beverage made up of polar (water-soluble) and nonpolar (fat-soluble) ingredients will naturally separate (as in oil-and-vinegar salad dressing) or form a colloid, an opaque mixture composed of submicroscopic drops of nonpolar ingredients floating in the beverage background (for example, milk). Using nanotechnology, nonpolar ingredients can be dissolved in the beverage efficiently enough to maintain a clear appearance.
  • Nanotechnology can protect a product from harmful environmental conditions and thereby improve stability and increase shelf life.
  • Nanotechnology can improve taste, texture and appearance.

Cons of Consumption Nanotechnology

While many food scientists are excited about the world of possibilities for food enhancement afforded by nanotechnology, as with any new technology there are concerns about its application to foods and other consumables.

  • Many people prefer “natural” foods, drinks and consumables, and do not like the idea of using technology with them.  Some prefer a drink that looks milky or needs to be shaken over one that has been made clear through technology.  Some people like their peanut butter in pure, unemulsified form, with the oil separating from the paste and requiring stirring before use. Some cannabis consumers prefer brownies with a strong skunky flavor — and perhaps even bits of green leaf matter — over edibles made with technology to deliver cannabinoids with maximum effectiveness and minimum added weedy flavor. It’s just a matter of personal preference.
  • Since nanoparticles do become a part of the consumable, some consumers view nanotechnology-enhanced foods as impure. 
  • The uptake of nanomaterials can change the absorption profile and metabolism of the ingredient.  While this is a “pro” of consumption nanotechnology in the sense of using nanotechniques to enhance absorption and metabolism, it is important to conduct sound research on any method to make sure that it does not decrease absorption or alter metabolism in a negative way.
  • For many nanoparticles, toxicity remains unknown. Of course, this is also true of many natural compounds. Because plants use poison as a way to defend themselves from predation, natural products — from tobacco to the wild ancestors of potatoes — are inherently predisposed to be toxic.  With nanoparticles, the opposite is true: nanotechnology scientists deliberately choose materials that are nontoxic when developing additives for food or other consumables.  Research is key, though, and alongside research into the possibilities of nanoparticles there must be research into the possible side effects of these materials.
  • The effects of nanoparticles on the microbiome — the population of microbes that live inside the human body — are unknown. The beneficial microorganisms of the human microbiome protect us from health conditions ranging from obesity to Parkinson’s disease.  It is conceivable that the microbiome could be harmed by nanotechnology in certain scenarios, such as gel capsules that deliver antibiotics at altered metabolic timepoints.

Embracing the Future with Open Eyes

Consumption nanotechnology is an exciting field that is full of possibilities. The key is to embrace the future — but with open eyes and a commitment to fully understanding the technologies being developed.  That includes research into safety alongside research into all the ways that nanotechnology can enhance our health, well-being and enjoyment of foods, beverages and other consumables.

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