A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and introducing particles this size into everyday food products could change their physical properties – unmeltable M&Ms! Super low-cal still great-tasting ice cream! – without appreciably affecting the flavor. Yet nano-developments in food production are new enough that both researchers and regulators remain unsure of their real effects on consumers.
One issue is whether nanoparticles can fit past natural barriers in the body, such as membranes designed to keep out bigger particles. Another issue, as the European Commission’s Philippe Martin advised the FDA, is that common materials simply behave differently at such small scales. Gold, for example, is yellow and unreactive in a wedding band, but is blue and somewhat reactive at a size of one nanometer and reddish and very reactive at a size of three.
Since it’s difficult even to conceptualize such small particles, Wired offers some useful comparisons. “Nanotechnology” generally refers to the use and manipulation of particles that are up to 100 nanometers wide. A sheet of paper boasts a width of 100,000 nanometers; a human hair only 80,000.
Up to this point, the FDA hasn’t had much information to go on concerning the effects of nanoparticles on people and the environment. “Lack of evidence of harm should not be a proxy for reasonable certainty of safety,” the Consumers Union warns.
While nanotechnology is now cautiously employed for various commercial uses, such as plastic packaging, food coloring and frying oil, it currently accounts for only $410 million of the $3 trillion global food market. The New York Times cites a British market research firm called Cientifica as projecting that it could grow into a $5 billion industry by the year 2012.
The FDA’s goal at this point is to exercise responsible regulation without stifling innovation. And yet some consumer advocates feel extremely threatened by the introduction of these mysterious materials into the food they eat. “Compared to nontechnology, I think the threat of genetic engineering is tame,” Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Group, tells the Times.