The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) revealed earlier this week that there are over 1,600 nanotechnology-based products on the market today -- and that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lacks the authority to regulate them.
As Mother Jones reported, some of these nanotechnological innovations -- which refer to particles less than 100 nanometers wide, or approximately 1/800th the diameter of a strand of human hair -- are likely harmless, such as embedded silver particles in athletic socks and underwear. According to SmartSilver Anti-Odor Nanotechnology Underwear, the microscopic silver particles are "strongly antibacterial to a wide range of pathogens, absorb sweat, and by killing bacteria help eliminate unpleasant foot odor."
However, the PEN database also includes 96 nanotechnology-infused items currently stocked on grocery store shelves, and none of these items listed their nanotechnology among their ingredients. Included on the list are Dannon Greek Plain Yogurt, Hershey's Bliss Dark Chocolate, Kraft's American Cheese Singles, and Rice Dream Rice Drink, all of which contain nanoparticles of titanium dioxide.
Titanium dioxide -- often referred to as "the perfect white" or "the whitest white" -- is used as a pigment because its refractive index is extremely high. It has long been present in paints, plastics, paper, toothpaste, and pearlescent cosmetics, but researchers recently discovered the benefits of adding it to skim milk. According to David Barbano, a professor at Cornell University's Department of Food Science, "[s]uspension of titanium dioxide in skim milk made the milk whiter, which resulted in improved sensory scores for appearance, creamy aroma, and texture...There is clearly a need to develop a whitener for fat-free milk other than titanium dioxide to provide processors with an ingredient option that would improve sensory properties and provide a nutritional benefit."
At issue, though, is not whether nano-additives like titanium dioxide provide "nutritional benefit," but whether they pose a potential threat to consumers. The FDA acknowledges that nanoparticles behave differently than their non-microscopic counterparts: "so-called nano-engineered food substances can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts."
The FDA is not currently empowered to regulate the entry of nanotechnology into the food supply -- it cannot even require companies list nanoparticulate matter on the ingredient list because it qualifies as an "incidental amount" of a finished food product.
The concern is that just as the small size of nanotechnology makes it a potentially powerful delivery system for chemotherapeutic drugs, nanoparticles might also enter and interact with healthy cells in unexpected ways.
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