Mother Nature long has been dealing at the nanotechnology level. Only in the past couple of decades have humans been able to intentionally modify matter at this size range.
Nanotechnology refers to a suite of techniques used to manipulate matter at the scale of atoms and molecules. Generally 1/1,000th the width of a human hair, these things are too small to be seen with a conventional microscope.
In this schematic of a self-assembled nanomicelle, AquaNova's NovaSOL allows for a water-soluble shell to trap fat-soluble materials such as vitamins A and D (that cannot be solubilized in water-based, fat-free beverages) and deliver them in water-based beverages.
All matter in our universe - living and non-living - is made from the chemical elements of the Periodic Table. What makes nanotechnology unique is that the properties of matter at the nano-scale (below 100 nanometers) can change dramatically. These unexpected changes are called quantum effects.
With only a reduction in size and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new properties, such as electrical conductivity, elasticity, increased strength, different color and greater reactivity - attributes they do not possess at the micro or macro scales.
Our understanding of this phenomenon is progressing in parallel with our ability to create new uses and applications for the food industry. "Commercial realization in the food industry will require proven and mature technologies and some time," says Rickey Yada, professor at the University of Guelph's Food Science Dept. (www.foodscience.uoguelph.ca), Guelph, Ontario.
"Nano-scale manipulations have led to the possibility of converging technologies and scientific disciplines to an unprecedented degree," Yada continues. He believes such convergence could have a profound impact on raw material sourcing for food processing and will radically change how food products affect our physiology.
For example, multinational German chemical manufacturer BASF (www.basf.com) produces nano-scale synthetic lycopene (a carotenoid) as a food additive for lemonade, fruit juices, cheese and margarine. Carotenoids are antioxidants and are converted into vitamin A in the body. Nano-scale carotenoids, according to BASF, are more easily absorbed by the body and increase product shelf life.
Hebrew University start-up Nutralease (www.nutralease.com) offers another glimpse of the potential impact of nanotechnology on physiology. Nissim Garti, a professor in the applied chemistry department of the Jerusalem university (www3.huji.ac.il), developed nano-sized self-assembled liquid structures (NSSL) to deliver nutrients in nano-sized particles to cells. The particles are expanded micelles with a diameter of approximately 30nm - hollow spheres made from fats, with an aqueous interior. They contain nutrients or nutraceuticals such as lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, phytosterols, CoQ10 and DHA/EPA.
Flavors can be very volatile. Within beverages in particular, they often evaporate, robbing consumers of taste satisfaction. While nanotechnology offers potential improvements in flavor enhancement within formula parameters, its value may be significantly greater when approached from a packaging perspective.
"Instead of putting a special flavor (or flavor enhancement) into the beverage, you can put it into the packaging material and slowly introduce it into the beverage," says Qingrong Huang, a Rutgers University (New Brunswick, N.J.) food scientist. The flavor is delivered or enhanced over time while the product is in the package. Huang calls the packaging potential of nanotechnology "endless."
These "nanodrops" allow the contents to enter the bloodstream from the gut more easily and thereby increase their bioavailability. Garti designed NSSL nanoemulsions to enhance the solubilization capacity of different compounds in either water-based or oil-based environments and provide exceptional stability (thermodynamic stability) in wide pH range.
Nutralease permits the formulation of clear beverages with previously insoluble ingredients at pH levels down to 2. Nutrients remain stable under conditions of high temperature (including pasteurization), shear and agitation. They also have oxidative stability and eliminate sedimentation.
Another Israeli firm, Shemen Industries (www.shemen.co.il), has adopted NSSL technology to produce Canola Activa oil. The technology allows for the smuggling of natural free phytosterols and other healthful components that otherwise are insoluble in water or fats. Garti claims that nanodrops of Canola Activa, by competing for bile solubilization, reduces cholesterol intake into the body by as much as 14 percent.
Manipulating nutrient delivery is a challenge in the food industry. Market analysts predict the market for functional foods containing medically beneficial nutrients will exceed $40 billion in 2008. The key focus of functional foods is delivering greater benefit of the nutrient consumed.
Nanotechnology enables the manipulation of the properties of the outer shell of a capsule in order to control the release of the substance to be delivered. Nanoencapsulation is an attractive delivery option. It protects vulnerable molecules from degradation in the digestive tract, provides controlled release properties and masks unpleasant tastes. Nanocapsules have a wall thickness of 10-40nm and range from 20nm-100nm in diameter.