Safe for Consumption?

We Know Nanoparticles Are in Our Food, But It’s Still Unclear What Harms They Pose to Our Health
It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that not only are we largely unaware of nanoparticles in our food supply, but that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can offer little in the way of specifics. Contacted for this issue’s cover story on the use of nanoparticles in food—microscopic particles used to deliver vitamins and nutrients, alter food consistency and preserve freshness—an FDA spokesperson admitted that the agency does not track which foods contain the particles, but relies on companies to voluntarily offer information.

As such, comprehensive information about which particular foods contain nanoparticles is hard to come by. Groups that are attempting to provide a go-to guide, particularly the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, have captured just a sliver of products. In some cases, particularly when it comes to supplements, packaging will tout the inclusion of nanosilver or nanoiron. But in most cases, consumers have no idea if a food product or its packaging contains nanomaterials. What’s worse, scientists are still uncovering the possible health impacts of ingesting nanoparticles and discovering that these tiny particles could cause harm when they enter the bloodstream through the digestive tract and accumulate in organs

The FDA has thus far preferred a hands-off approach, treating nanoparticles as equivalent to their larger-scale counterparts. But science shows us that the particles’ small size makes them capable of bypassing the blood-brain barrier and lodging in lungs, bringing unintended consequences. In 2011, researchers found that inhaled carbon nanotubes (used in plastics and computer chips) can damage the lungs similar to asbestos, giving rise to cancer. Ingested nanoparticles may have more subtly damaging effects—including inducing over-absorption of a particular vitamin or mineral to a toxic level. Each nanoparticle reacts differently with the human body and each needs thorough testing before it can be considered safe for consumption; but there’s been no such cautionary delay in bringing these products to market.

What do we know about where nanoparticles are found? A lot of white processed foods contain nano-sized titanium dioxide for pigment purposes—including Mentos, Trident gum, M&Ms and Nestle Original Coffee Creamer. Food packaging is another route of exposure, though it’s nearly impossible to determine which contain nanoaluminum and nanosilver, used for its antibacterial properties. What’s needed—with nanoparticles and all chemicals—is a precautionary approach that safety tests firsts and approves second. Instead, researchers are scrambling to determine adverse health outcomes, industry is keeping quiet, the FDA is avoiding the issue and consumers are left in the dark.