Microscopic pieces of metal are being used as ingredients in many common foods, such as M&M’s, Trix Cereal, and Silk Original Soy Milk, and they aren’t being labeled — or regulated.

These materials pose risks to the health of consumers, workers, and the environment, as suggested by a growing body of research. The situation is certainly one to be concerned about. If changes aren’t made soon, the rate of nanoparticles in our food will continue to rise, without being tested for safety.

A recent analysis by Friends of the Earth shows how food products containing nanoparticles have increased more than tenfold in only six years. In 2008, only eight nanofoods existed. Now, approximately 200 trans-national food companies are investing in nanotech. And two to three foods containing nanomaterials are entering the market each week (according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars).

What are Nanoparticles?

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials and the creation of structures and systems at the scale of atoms and molecules. So we’re talking about super small things here. And many industries beyond those in food production are interested in this technology and its applications.

You might think that metals in our foods sounds odd, but the situation is worse, because at super small sizes these “nanoparticles pose risks that are substantially different from those of their regular-sized counterparts,” according to an article in Mother Jones.

Why are Food Companies Interested in Nanotechnology?

The food industry is attracted to radically miniaturized particles because of their novel properties. For example, the most commonly used nano-size metal in food is titanium dioxide, which is used as a brightener and whitener.

Some other nanoparticles are used for various reasons, from enabling foods, such as soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate, or chips, to be marketed as “health” foods by reducing fat, carbs, or calorie content by increasing protein, fiber, or vitamin content to producing stronger flavorings, colorings, nutritional additives, and processing aids to speed up manufacturing and lower costs.

What Risks do Nanoparticles Pose for People?

Nanoparticles have some potentially exciting and useful applications, but much more testing is needed.

Nanoparticles pose risks because:

  • They can be more chemically reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same chemicals.

  • They have much greater access to our bodies, so they are more likely to enter cells, tissues, and organs.

  • They can compromise our immune system.

  • They may have long-term pathological effects.

Here’s more reason to be concerned: In laboratory studies, nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (the one most used in foods today) have been found to cause a reaction from the body’s defense system.

Also, nanoparticles of silver, zinc, and zinc oxide have been found to be highly toxic in test tube and animal studies.

Even scarier, one study showed how exposure to nano-silver caused zebrafish embryos to develop with head abnormalities and no eyes.

The FDA acknowledges the risks posed by nanoparticles, but it has done nothing to slow down their move into the food supply.

Companies aren’t required to conduct rigorous safety studies on nanoparticles in their foods. The FDA’s policy draft proposes “nonbonding recommendations,” but even these recommendations haven’t been released yet.

What Risks do Nanoparticles Pose for Animals and the Environment?

Environmental studies suggest that nanoparticles may be toxic to ecologically significant species, such as certain crustaceans, which are an important part of the food chain.

In addition, the expansion of nanotechnology in food will result in a higher ecological footprint, as food travels farther and is even more highly processed, requiring greater energy inputs.

Which Foods and Companies are Participating in Nanotechnology?

Major food companies are manufacturing and selling nanofoods, including Kraft, General Mills, Hershey, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and more.

Familiar products are using nano-ingredients, such as processed and cream cheeses, cookies, doughnuts, coffee creamer, chocolate syrup and other chocolate products, pudding, mayonnaise, mashed potatoes, milk, soy, almond and rice beverages, mints, gum, popcorn, salad dressing and oils, yogurt, cereal, candy, crackers, pasta, and sports drinks.

Nanofoods are even being marketed for children and babies — the powdered nutritional drinks ToddlerHealth and NanoVM — are being used in edible coatings on fruits and veggies to extend their shelf life.

Plus, because no labeling or disclosure is required, the number of nanomaterials in foods is likely much higher.

See a list of the almost 100 foods with nanoparticles in the Friends of the Earth report.

What You Can Do to Avoid Nanofoods and Support a Sustainable, Just Food System

These suggestions are adapted from the report.

  • Avoid eating highly processed foods and eat fresh foods instead. Processed foods have higher environmental costs of production and are a large source of incidentally produced nanoparticles in foods.

  • Avoid highly packaged foods. Packaging is energy intensive and produces lots of waste and is often unnecessary. You can also let your local food outlets and manufacturers of your favorite foods know that you want to see less food packaging.

  • Choose food that is healthy for you and the environment and that also pays a fair wage to food producers.

  • Make environmentally friendly food and farming choices. Choose products with the organic label.

  • Support local food producers and small-scale retailers and buy directly from local farmers, butchers, and bakers. Some options include joining a food co-op or a bulk-buying scheme.

  • Support the right of communities to control local food trade. This means deciding how food is grown, who can sell it and what can be imported.

You can also hold the government and industry accountable for nanofoods by writing to your local representatives requesting their support for a moratorium on the use of all nanotechnology in the food sector and demanding that governments regulate and label food products that contain nanomaterials. And you can contact the manufacturers of foods you eat to express concern about this issue.

What actions will you take in this important issue for our health and the health of our planet?

Image source: jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons