Nanotechnology in the food industry is expected to nearly triple in value to $20.4 billion by 2020, with several emerging areas for innovation, reports New Food Magazine.
Engineered nanotech compounds could offer great benefits in ingredients — particularly for increased solubility and bioavailability — as well as in food packaging — with antimicrobial surfaces and sensors that change color when food begins to degrade.
In the food sector, there has been a 40% increase in publications and a 90% increase in patent filings involving nanotechnology in the past two decades. More than 1,000 companies now have an R&D focus on nanotechnology-based products. Future applications could include immobilizing enzymes to improve their efficiency and reuse, and using nanoscale structures to create new food textures.
Nanotechnology refers to controlling compounds on a molecular scale measured in nanometers, or millionths of meters. In the food industry, the technology has excited manufacturers as its potential uses have been explored, such as producing stronger flavors or colors, improving the bioavailability of nutrients, and detecting bacteria in packaging.
However, early enthusiasm from researchers and product developers was met with pushback from consumers who were concerned about the technology’s safety. Since then, the FDA has released guidelines on using nanotechnology in food, but the industry has been wary about how it communicates nanotech-based innovation with consumers.
Nanoscale compounds in food are not new. They exist naturally in milk, with nanoscale casein particles responsible for its fat stability. Meanwhile, more than 1,600 consumer products contain engineered nanoscale particles, according to an inventory run by The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. They are already widely used in the food packaging sector to help ensure food quality and safety. Nanotech-based sensors can detect and measure the presence of oxygen or bacteria, such as listeria.
In the ingredient sector, nanotechnology is still more widely used in supplements. However, nanoencapsulation could be used to protect sensitive compounds — like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyunsaturated fatty acids — so they could be delivered only when they reach the gut. That would improve how they are absorbed by the body, and reduce their impact on a product’s taste and appearance.
Communicating the benefits of nanotechnology in food is still one of the industry’s biggest challenges, and some say it is slowing development in the sector. However, with diverse applications covering everything from improved food safety to better nutrition, reduced food waste, and biodegradable packaging, it is inevitable that consumers will start to see more nanoscale compounds in consumer products in the coming years.