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.