It sounds futuristic, but nanomaterials are already widely used throughout the food packaging industry. For example, certain glass bottles are engineered with nanoparticles to prevent excess carbon dioxide from escaping during production.
No, this is not a climate change initiative. It is to increase the shelf life of carbonated beverages — without having to resort to more expensive, heavier glass or other alternatives.
This is just one example of the benefits of nanotech in food packaging, and it is just the beginning of the opportunities it provides. A new revolution in packaging is underway, and coming sooner than you might think.
Let us start with perhaps the most incredible development in nanopackaging technology — that nanoparticles are able to deliver vitamins and other nutrients to food and drink without altering how they taste. Once in the body, they can help with the transference of the molecules, through the stomach and into the bloodstream.
This transference was developed to help people absorb more of the nutrients that they might not otherwise be getting from their diet. And nanosensors are being developed to help this process, by determining what nutrients the body is deficient in.
Nanomaterials are also in development with the ability to change the colour, texture, and taste of various foods. These so-called ‘interactive foods’ could mean the difference between opening a can of lemonade or ginger beer, depending on how you instruct the nanomaterials to reconfigure your drink.
Of course, this is frontier knowledge and ambition. Will the technology for interactive foods ever be available? We will have to wait and see.
Nanotechnology and disease
Salmonella is one of the big scourges of food packaging. Now, scientists believe that nanotechnology can help. Nanosensors are already under development that have the ability to pick up on salmonella and E.coli traces.
By scanning food at processing and packaging plants, these sensors will allow for cheaper and more frequent testing, this could prevent much of the contaminated food goods from ever reaching our shelves.
There is already a system in place that can detect bacteria in under 15 minutes, developed by US health and allied service firm Nano Science Diagnostics, which could soon be deployed.
Other ways nanotech can be implemented is to detect different factors that can cause harm to human health. One example being pesticide accumulation on fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown that nanotech can trace even a few particles of pesticide — making the technology more reliable than a dog’s nose.
Nanotechnology on the market
Much of the nanotech currently involved in food packaging is directed at expanding the shelf life of the products. US-based multinational Honeywell Industries produces a resin, Aegis, which is fundamental in the production of plastic beer bottles. The resin is loaded with clay particles that essentially trap carbon dioxide in the bottle, similar to the aforementioned example in glass bottles.
Similarly, US nanocomposite coatings company InMat uses nanoclay platelets in its Nanolok, a compound that helps to create a plastic film preventing oxygen penetration and water damage to packaged dry foods.
Nanoparticles are also a staple in many food storage bins. Meshed into the plastic, silver nanoparticles help to kill off bacteria and other pathogens — reducing the risk of harmful pathogen contamination. All wonderful stuff, but short of the apparent miracles that are currently in development.
Questions of regulation
Refreshingly, it looks as though the nanotech front is being well monitored. The European Union’s Classification, Labelling and Packaging regulations require confirmation if any food type is potentially subject to nano-modification.
Likewise, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed what’s called a Significant New Use Rule that will ensure nanoscale materials are regulated accordingly.
There are several non-governmental organisations, including the International Organisation for Standardisation and the London School of Economics, closely monitoring nanotech policies all over the world and studying their effects.
Even more sophisticated food packaging products are in development, which are expected to hit our food shelves quicker than you might think.
Prototypes successfully tested in university laboratories include nanosensors that indicate when food has spoiled by changing the packaging’s colour; and that warn when the product has not been kept at the recommended temperature, and more.
There is even the advanced concept of radio-frequency controlled packaging in development.
Personally, I like the idea of walking into a supermarket and being able to immediately scan food for pesticides and pathogens. Until then, though, this food packing revolution is just beginning. We have not even scratched the surface of the possibilities.