What are Nanoparticles, and are they Safe?

Nanomaterials have been heralded as having the potential to revolutionize the food industry – from enabling production of creamy liquids that contain no fat, to enhancing flavors, improving supplement delivery, providing brighter colors, keeping food fresh longer, or indicating when it spoils. Yet few, if any, studies adequately demonstrate the safety of nanoparticles in food. In fact, scientists are still investigating how nanoparticles in food will react in the body and what testing methodologies are appropriate to determine this.

As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes corporate responsibility and environmental health, released Slipping Through the Cracks: An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Food today. The brief includes results of a survey of 2,500 food companies about their use of nanomaterials in food products, as well as laboratory results showing titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles in the white powdered sugar that coats Dunkin’ Donuts Powdered Cake Donuts and Hostess Donettes.

We plan to test M&M’s, Pop-Tarts, and Trident gum for the presence of nanomaterials next. This unregulated new technology is clearly entering our food supply. There has been little if any safety testing, and there is no transparency of what products it is in. As we learned from our survey, many companies may not even know that they have nanomaterials in their supply chain.

“There has been a lot of buzz about the potential of nanomaterials in food, but very little information about the risks to public health,” said Danielle Fugere, As You Sow President and co-author of the brief. “Much deeper scientific inquiry is needed to prove nanomaterials are safe before they continue to be sold commercially.”

Currently, the United States has no labeling requirement for food products or food packaging containing nanomaterials. The Food and Drug Administration has stated that nanomaterials cannot be generally regarded as safe, but has not taken sufficient steps to determine toxicity exposure or to move towards regulating them, despite the likelihood that nanomaterials are rapidly making their way into our food supply.

Because of their small size, nanoparticles can to go places in the body that larger particles cannot. Nanoparticles in food or food packaging can gain access via ingestion, inhalation, or skin penetration. Once inside our bodies, nanoparticles can penetrate cell walls and pass into the blood and lymph system. From there, the particles can circulate through the body and reach potentially sensitive target sites such as bone marrow, lymph nodes, the spleen, the liver, the heart, and cross the blood brain barrier.

Our survey results indicate that food, food packaging, and supplement companies are not being transparent about their use of nanomaterials. The survey was sent to 2,500 companies in the food industry – including the 100 largest food processing companies, the 50 largest food distributors, the 75 largest food retailers, the 25 top packaging companies, the 50 top fast food companies, and 187 supplement companies. It yielded only 26 responses and a third of those companies admitted they did not know if nanomaterials are present in their products or supply chains. Only two companies had formal policies on the use of this new food additive that has undergone little or no safety testing.

“Companies need to address the issue of nano-engineered materials in a proactive and transparent way,” says Fugere. “Failure to understand whether nanomaterials are being used in a food product, or to understand the potential harm to human health and the environment from those materials, poses significant risks to investors in those companies.”

“Companies should survey their suppliers to learn if there are nanomaterials in their food products or packaging, and should disclose their policies on nanomaterials,” says Michael Passoff, co-author of the brief. “Consumers and stakeholders should question companies about their use of nanomaterials and press for labeling of nano-enhanced products. Given the recent consumer outrage over GMOs and BPA, companies need to act now to prevent a similar backlash that could have a negative impact on the company’s reputation and financial performance.”

The issue brief is a follow-up to our 2011 Sourcing Framework for Food and Food Packaging Products Containing Nanomaterials, which presents steps companies should take, including questions they should ask their suppliers, regarding the safety of products containing nanomaterials, to allow them to make informed decisions on this issue.

Photo Credit: Jacqueline Argote - Zach Behar Films

NOTE: This is a guest post from Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies.


By Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow


Mari Garcia
Mari Garcia3 years ago

Sounds like more paranoia from those who don't understand science is on the horizon.

William H.

Nanoparticles don't help with editing 'nanoparticles can to go places', which macro-scale typists create (the safety of macro-scale typists hasn't yet been assured).

Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider3 years ago

Sigh :(

Olivia S.
Past Member 3 years ago

Ditto Phil...and perhaps add in some good old fashioned greed. Thanks for the warning.

Mary L.
Mary L.3 years ago

Lovely more to worry about while the bmocs in charge shrug their shoulders and say, "Uh, I dun no."

Makes me long for millions to buy a farm.

Mara Comitas
Past Member 3 years ago

I will definitely read the issue brief. Why is it the food industry feels that it is OK to treat us as guinea pigs?????

Ram Reddy
Ram Reddy3 years ago

Thanks for info

Wim Zunnebeld
Wim Zunnebeld3 years ago

Thx for the info!

Wim Zunnebeld
Wim Zunnebeld3 years ago

Thx for the info!

Vicky P.
Vicky P.3 years ago

:/ more and more crap being introduced, scary