THEGREENGROK    The Chemical Marketplace

Do You Know What’s on Your Shopping List?

by Bill Chameides | April 14th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment


Do you know what’s in your food? Should you?

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

Guess what the food industry’s been adding to your food.

Nanoparticles. That’s right, those teeny weeny particles that may hold the key to a cornucopia of new, astounding stuff, or may be a modern Pandora’s Box that will let loose a host of unintended consequences — or both.

So, how tiny are we talking? Nano (which comes from the Greek word for “dwarf”) refers to one billionth of a meter. Nanoparticles are generally considered anything smaller than 1,000 nanometers in size. Is that small? Well, consider that a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide. In Americanese, nanoparticles run from about one-hundred millionth of an inch at their smallest to about one ten-thousandths of an inch at their largest. Like I said, teeny weeny itsy bitsy.

Nanoparticles are usually made from ordinary chemicals, but because they’re so tiny, they behave in completely different ways from the same chemicals at normal size. Take for an example carbon. At normal sizes carbon can be made to form graphite (the stuff in pencils) or diamonds. But craft that carbon into a nanomaterial like a nanotube, and suddenly that carbon becomes 100 times stronger than steel and displays all sorts of unique properties we’re just beginning to understand.

The Chemical Marketplace
A series that looks at chemicals in everyday consumer products
     Alkylphenols and laundry and such »
     Aluminum and antiperspirants »
     BPAF »
     Dioxin and eggs »
     Flame retardants and pets »
     Fluoride and water »
     Formaldehyde and no-iron shirts
     Insect repellents »
     Nanoparticles and food
     PAH and seal coats: A no-brainer »
     PBDE and fire retardants »
     PFOA and popcorn »
     Piperonyl butoxide, a pesticde »
     Propoxur and bedbugs »
     Rotenone, a pesticide »
     Spray foams, sealants, diisocyanates »
     TDCPP and the air »
     Triclosan and toothpaste »
     Trihalomethanes (THM) and
showering »

The Duality of the Dwarf: The Blessing and Curse of Nanotech

The fact that nanoparticles come from ordinary chemicals but behave extraordinarily is their blessing and their curse. A blessing because we now have the ability to make new materials to solve all sorts of problems. A curse because among the wondrous properties they may have are some we will not be especially happy about, to put it mildly — like those causing environmental damage or endangering our health.

The rub is that current environmental regulations for most materials are based on the chemical makeup of the material, not size. So without tailoring relevant regulations, nanoparticles are often able to fly in under the radar and enter the marketplace.

Ideally, the precautionary principle would be applied, meaning there would be careful, extensive testing of nanoparticles from both a health and environmental standpoint before letting them loose in the market. While progress on this front has been slow, the good news is that in 2008 the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation set up two Centers for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology to do just that: one headquartered here at Duke and the other at the University of California, Los Angeles.

About time. Nanoparticles have become ubiquitous in the marketplace. For some time I’ve been aware of many of the kinds of products containing nanoparticles, including all sorts of things from electronics and sunscreens to outdoorsy fabrics and odor-resistant items. But did you know that nanoparticles can now also be found in food products?

Teeny Tiny Food Additives That Might Have Escaped You

That’s right those potentially pesky little, miracle particles are being added to some of the food that sits innocently on supermarket shelves waiting for you to load them into your cart, buy ’em up and then unknowingly send down your and your family’s gullet.

One use of nanoparticles in food is to improve so-called “mouth feel,” especially in foods where we’d much prefer that disparate ingredients (like a liquid and a powder) be blended together to form a smooth uniform emulsion. And so the kinds of food products in which you’re most likely to find nanoparticles include salad dressings and nutritional drinks (even for babies).

To the best of my knowledge no comprehensive listing of foods or food packing containing nanoparticles exists, except in rudimentary form. In fact last year the United Kingdom’s House of Lords Science and Technology Committee issued a report criticizing the food industry as being too secretive.

OK, I’ll bet you might be asking yourself by now, so nanoparticles are in some of my food, but are they dangerous? Well, I’m unaware of evidence that any specific product is a health threat. But then again, it’s not clear to me that anyone has really looked at the health question in a comprehensive way.* So here again, as in other aisles of the Chemical Marketplace, it should be a matter of buyer beware.

But just how can a buyer like yourself or myself beware if we can’t figure out which foods have nanoparticles and which don’t? Darn good question to which I would Socratically respond: Do you think food manufacturers should be required to include nanoparticles in the contents list on their labels? You might think it’s a tiny point, but hey, could have big consequences.



* Research has begun to link nanoparticles in other products with health issues. (See studies here and here.)

filed under: faculty, food, health
and: , , , , , ,

1 Comment

All comments are moderated and limited to 275 words. Your e-mail address is never displayed. Read our Comment Guidelines for more details.

  1. Jim
    Apr 15, 2011

    I think food manufacturers should have to list any and all ingredients on a label, and in what quantities. There also should be a comprehensive web site where you can look up these ingredients and what exactly they are and what we know about them (potential consequences). If I’m going to be ingesting this stuff, I have a right to know. This is more reason to stay away from any and all processed foods.

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff