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.
|Kraft Foods and NanoteK researchers are moving beyond ingredient applications of nanotechnology to develop the "electronic tongue." Intended initially for inclusion in packaging, this array of nanosensors serves as an indicator of chemical changes. Kraft plans to incorporate the electronic tongue into foods to release accurately controlled amounts of the suitable molecules to tailor the smell, taste and goodness of the product for the individual consumer.|
There are several advantages to using nanocapsules. Formulators can have higher dose-loading with smaller dose volumes for a more attractive nutrition and ingredient panel. Nutrients are protected from degradation during storage for better shelf life and handling cost. Higher bioavailability eliminates the common practice of adding more to compensate for processing-related dissipation.
For ingredient suppliers, nanotechnology offers many opportunities. Volatile flavors often in liquid form can be transformed into a powder, which generally is easier to handle. Active flavors that may interact with the other food ingredients can be stabilized for longer product shelf life.
Nanocapsules helped Chicago-based Nu-Mega (www.nu-mega.com) and Clover Corp. incorporate tuna fish oil, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, into Tip-Top Up bread in western Australia. Nu-Mega claims the nanocapsules open only when they have reached the stomach, thus avoiding the unpleasant taste of the fish oil.
Encapsulation technologies can deliver strong taste, but taste is often unevenly distributed.
"You may have a strong burst of taste from a big capsule, but you won't have the same burst of taste throughout," says Qingrong Huang, a food scientist at Rutgers University (www.foodsci.rutgers.edu/caft), New Brunswick, N.J. "Nano particles are more interactive. They cover more of the tongue."
Nanotechnology is an exciting technology but so leading-edge that it may take some time for consumers to accept it. Several food processors who are using the technology asked not to be identified in this story for fear of consumer backlash. So consider these points:
Bioavailability of potentially healthful micronutrients that are commonly lost in the gastrointestinal tract can be enhanced similarly with nanotechnology, Huang says. Teas, cranberry juice, blueberry juice, and wine are but a few of the beverages that might deliver on their health promise in nano form.
"It's hard to absorb the tea components," says Huang, "but with nano particles, their availability will be much better. You don't want to wait until you have a problem with obesity or cancer or heart disease. You want to prevent them from occurring. We are working on a beverage product with active ingredients from tea, blueberry and grapes that can improve your health and help prevent disease."
Whereas nanocapsules are carriers composed of an oil core surrounded by a polymeric wall, nanospheres consist of a polymeric matrix with several phases in suspension.
Nanospheres of omega-3 oils have very low surface oil (less than 0.5 percent) at very high payloads (4050 percent) compared to 1-3 percent surface oil and 20 percent payload of some conventional spray-dried particles using hydrocolloids or starch and other microcapsule forms of omega-3.
Flavor manufacturers find the moisture-sensitive matrix provides excellent retention of flavors that tend to be highly volatile, especially over an extended period of time. The technology also minimizes flavor fade during product shelf life. Encapsulant hydrophobicity prevents the encapsulated bitter ingredients from going into solution and interacting directly with taste receptors.
Olala Foods (www.olalafoods.com), Northbrook, Ill., designed nanospheres to be dissolved by saliva and shear, delaying the release of nano-encapsulated cocoa butter in Olala's Chocola chocolate chewing gum. Michael Gurin, the inventor, explained that nanocapsules also created a creamy texture in the gum without affecting its stability.
Flavor manufacturers can encapsulate and stabilize citral (the lemon flavor used in many Key lime formulations) at the pH of fruit juices for release in the mouth upon drinking. Because hydrophobic nanospheres are temperature-sensitive, they are ideal for releasing active ingredients and flavors when a drink or soup is heated.
An electronmicrograph of a vitamin A micelle shows it to be smaller than 50nm, its size making it more easily absorbed by the body.
Invisible in the market, too
"Every major food corporation has a program in nanotechnology or is looking to develop one," according to Jozef Kokini, director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers University. In fact, nanotechnology ingredients already are appearing in food.
But until the technology matures a bit more and public acceptance is certain, no food company is touting its use. At the moment there is no requirement for nano labeling. Although BASF sells its nano-scale synthetic carotenoids to major food and beverage companies worldwide, it would not identify customers or food products.
Hershey, Unilever and Nestle all have been reported to be dabbling in nanotechnology. But Kraft Foods (www.kraft.com), Northfield, Ill., may be the leader of the pack. Kraft formed NanoteK, a consortium to develop nanotechnology food applications, with 15 universities and public research laboratories and a diverse group of molecular chemists, material scientists, engineers and physicists - but no food scientists.
One technology from NanoteK is nanocapsules containing a dozen or more flavors, nutrients or even colors, designed to burst at different microwave frequencies in colorless beverages and produce the consumer's flavor, nutrient or color of choice. With this technology, Kraft hopes to achieve greater bioavailability, fresher tastes and stronger aromas.
Controlled release strategies, highly prized in medicine, can allow materials to be absorbed more slowly, at a specific location in the body or at the prompt of an external trigger. The application has several potential applications in the food industry especially for nutritionally enhanced food. The food industry has several control mechanisms to choose from:
Nanomilling is one way to enhance the bioavailability of ingredients. China's Shenzhen Become Industry & Trade Co. Ltd. (www.nanotea.com) used patented nano-grade ball-milling technology to produce Nanotea. Particles of less than 100nm facilitate the release of tea essence and phytonutrients in solution.
The selenium-rich Nanoteas - in black, green, dark green, yellow, white and dark - may be mixed in cold or hot water. Shenzen claims the tenfold release of phytonutrients and selenium is effective in boosting adsorption of free radicals, cholesterol and blood fat and the annihilation of viruses through rapid penetration.
The company is working on a Nanocoffee to take advantage of faster extraction of coffee essences, caffeine and other phytonutrients from the smaller size particles (think turbo-charged espresso).
Nanotechnology is "the perfect way to capture and deliver the natural health benefits of cocoa without the need for additional sugar and fat," according to Clinton Howard, CEO of Dallas-based RBC Life Sciences International (www.royalbodycare.com). RBC's NanoCluster delivery system was used to create CocoaClusters - nano-particles of cocoa powder 100,000th the size of a single grain of sand. They are designed to carry cocoa's nutrition directly into the cells. The technology reduces the surface tension of cocoa to increase wetness and rapid absorption in the gut. RBC's Slim Shake Chocolate is another product that reduces additional fat and sugar using the same technology.
Another way to enhance bioavailability is to place the ingredient in a protective envelope or capsule and engineer it to dissolve or diffuse the active ingredient under the right conditions.
Typically, fat-soluble nutrients cannot be used in water-based formulations. But AquaNova's technology turns them into micelles of 50 microns, enabling them to be suspended in water-based solutions.
German company Aquanova (www.aquanova.com) developed NovaSOL technology to combine two active substances into a single nano-carrier, micelles of average diameter 30nm. The soluble micelles are stable over a wide range of pH and temperature, in contrast to their larger counterparts - microemulsions and liposomes. They can be integrated directly and independent of recipe characteristics into final food and beverage products. Optimized solution and dispersion of hydrophobic substances thus allow for faster and greater resorption of active ingredients by the intestine.
Aquanova applied the technology for an intelligent weight management approach: NovaSOL Sustain uses CoQ1O to tackle fat reduction and alpha-lipoic acid for satiety. NovaSOL technology also generated SoluE - a vitamin E preparation that does not cloud liquids - and a vitamin C preparation called SoluC to protect contents from stomach acids.
Candy maker Mars Inc. (www.mars.com), McLean Va., was issued a patent (U.S. patent 5,741,505) in 1998 on "edible products having inorganic coatings." The coatings, which may include silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide, prevent oxygen or moisture entry and extend the shelf life of the chocolate and hard candy center. The patent identifies the ideal coating for M&Ms, Twix and Skittles to be in the 5-20nm range.
Another candy maker, Switzerland's Nestlé (www.nestle.com) is exploring the use of nanotechnology to customize and personalize food. Nanotechnology would create new food materials with self-assembly, self-healing and self-maintaining properties. These would achieve the accurately targeted delivery of nutritional and health benefits.
Nanotechnology and nano-materials have the potential to play significant roles in the enhancement of food and beverages. A thoughtful approach taking into consideration the benefits and risks of this tiny technology may mean a big win for both consumers and processors.
Kantha Shelke is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago firm that specializes in competitive intelligence and expert witness services. The firm helps businesses and organizations in the health and wellness sector. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-951-5810.