Nano Materials' Slow Ascent

Adoption of new technology usually inches along. In the case of nanotechnology in food, the timeline is measured in even smaller increments.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Industrial Nanotech is careful to avoid comparisons to insulating R value. There is a European standard that equates the bottler’s coating to about 3 inches of rock wool. That equates to R9-R12 insulating value.

A more compelling ROI was realized last year at Blue Line Brewery, a microbrewery in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Six coats on an 85-gallon brew kettle accelerated wort boiling time to 45 minutes, according to owner Mark Gillis. A 65-gallon uncoated kettle takes 2 hours to reach boil.

Dental candy

If Gillis ever considered adding nano ingredients to the hops and malt inside his kettles, a maelstrom of protest undoubtedly would ensue. That helps explain the cold shoulder Robert Karlinsey has received to date from confectioners and other food companies he has approached about adding to their products a teeth whitening and restorative agent he developed.

A former director of the nanotech program at the Indiana University School of Dentistry, Karlinsey relies on a nanoscale fusion process to combine calcium and phosphate ions that build enamel-like material on a tooth’s surface. “Basically, it’s a tooth healing agent,” explains Karlinsey, president of Indiana Nanotech LLC, Indianapolis.

The engineered material has been used in a line of professional oral-care products from 3M since 2007. It’s also incorporated in Clinpro Tooth Crème, a retail product. The ingredient panel describes the material as tri-calcium phosphate, a deliberately benign name.

“It’s a big selling point to use calcium phosphate instead of fluoride,” he believes. “We were the third or fourth company to put calcium phosphate into a dental product, but we are the most effective.” Noting that the active ingredient in many pharmaceuticals is necessarily nanoscale in order to pass through cell membranes, Karlinsey says increased bioavailability would be beneficial in better-for-you foods as well as confections, although public perceptions remain a stumbling block.

Public nano resistance is widespread. Friends of the Earth is lobbying the European Health Commissioner to declare a moratorium on nano materials in food supplements and food-contact materials, while also insisting they should be redefined to include materials three times larger than the currently accepted maximum size to be considered nano (100 nanometers).

“We see the same arguments against nano ingredients as we see with GMOs,” muses Rickey Yado, dean of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Medicine is a life-and-death must,” and that shields pharmaceutical manufacturers from criticism over nano ingredients. “Food is something we celebrate with. It has emotional aspects that touch on freedom of choice,” Yado continues, and that makes a nano backlash all but inevitable.

FDA, Health Canada and other regulatory bodies have provided some general guidance for nano ingredients in food, but until there are clear standards, definitions and regulations, he expects food manufacturers to steer clear of them, lest they be vilified. Likewise, use of nano components in active packaging will be sidelined until there are definitive answers about the potential danger of leeching into the food itself.

In the meantime, coatings of one type or another will be the greatest benefit to food manufacturers from this dynamic area of material science.

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