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Nanotechnology targets new food packaging products

By Ahmed ElAmin , 12-Oct-2005

Exciting new nanotechnology products for food packaging are in the development pipeline or, as in the case of anti-microbial films, have already entered the market, according to a report publishedthis month by an EU-funded research team.

"While far reaching visions such as nanotech food synthesizers or pathogen killing nanobots are not expected to become reality within the next decades, nanotechnology related R&D forfood processing, food engineering and food packaging is in the innovation pipeline of the food industry today," the team said.

The EU outline report deals with the ethical, legal, and social aspects of nanotechnology as applied to food packaging, energy and medical diagnostics. Along the way it also reveals thedevelopments in food packaging being pioneered by companies, including techniques to improve food safety and supply chain tracking.

 

Consumer suspicion about the technology could result in opposition and hence repress its development and use and this is what the new research paper is attempting to deal with, before the reactionsets in.

 

Whilst there is much excitement about the potential for nanotechnologies to offer many benefits some consumer groups, scientists and media commentators have also expressed their concerns about itspossible risks, the team stated in their report.

 

Nanotechnology is attractive to the food industry as it promises to yield new solutions to key challenges, the team stated.

 

Food engineering is one of the issues receiving highest attention. Research and development underway includes the development of functional food, nutrient delivery systems and methods foroptimizing food appearance, such as colour, flavour and consistency.

 

Another big issue in food industry-related R&D is food packaging and food monitoring.

 

In the food-packaging arena, nanomaterials are being developed with enhanced mechanical and thermal properties to ensure better protection of foods from exterior mechanical, thermal, chemical ormicrobiological effects.

 

"This would endow packaged foods with an additional level of safety and functionality," the researchers stated. "Additionally it would offer advantages along the supplychain and would potentially increase the shelf life of foods."

 

Some of the potential uses of nanotechnology in food packaging include modifying the permeation behaviour of foils, increasing barrier properties, improving mechanical and heat-resistanceproperties, developing active antimicrobic and antifungal surfaces, and sensing and signalling microbiological and biochemical changes.

 

One aim of innovative packaging solutions is the reduction of spoilage, the team stated. Production, processing and shipment of food products could

 

be made more secure throuh the use of nanosensors for pathogen and contaminant detection.

 

Nanotechnology has the potential to provide a new solution to the tracking and tracing of goods and also to provide new monitoring techniques, they stated.

 

The most prominent products in the food industry's research and development pipeline include new polymer nanocomposites for packaging and wrapping. Foils or membranes based on nanocompositesoffer adjustable gas permeability in food packaging which can help to better protect food.

 

Also in the pipeline are anti-microbial packaging materials. Materials exhibiting anti-microbial properties caused by nanoparticular silver or other substances have already entered the market. Inthe future, anti-microbial packaging is expected to become a mass application, the team stated.

 

Another development is packaging with self cleaning surfaces. Dirt-repellent coatings at the nanoscale can prevent the invasion of microorganisms and ensure food safety, they stated.

 

In the area of smart packaging, food packagers are developing materials with properties that can change depending on external or internal conditions such as temperature.

 

"In the future, food packaging that can adjust its properties to pH, pressure, temperature and light or show selfhealing properties when perforated may become available," theystated.

 

Nanotechnology is also being applied to the tagging and monitoring of food items. Nanotechnology based anti-counterfeit technologies are in currently in the the R&D pipeline of variouscompanies, the team reported.

 

The tagging of food packages will mean that food can be monitored from farm to fork. In the food sector the protection of brand authenticity may cause better food safety in certain cases.

 

Another area under development is attempts to characterise biomaterial at the nanoscopic level. The application of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) in the area of food sciences is currently usedto study the nanoscale structure of foods and other biomaterials, they report.

 

Countering these developments are civil organisations such as the ETC group, which has expressed general concerns about the use of nanotechnology in food and agriculture and scrutinisessocio-economic effects.

 

In a report published last year the ETC group called for a moratorium, prohibiting the application of nanotechnology until the absence of health risks caused by nanoparticles will be scientificallyevident.

 

This is a major warning sign that nanotechnology may soon hit a consumer roadblock once products come on the market.

 

The report is part of a series of outlines being published this year as the European Commission develops a ten-year strategic plan for using the technology. More reports are expected to bepublished by the end of this year, the deadline.

 

In a globalised food market the EU is attempting to ensure its industry remains competitive around the world by directing more funding at applied research to ensuring the development of moreefficient processes and products to meet the demand for cheaper, healthier, safer, functional, and more convenient foods.

 

For the food and agriculture sectors the important parts of the road map include developments in techniques for food safety, for inserting targeted molecules in health foods, and for developingnanomaterials for smart packaging.

 

Nanosciences and nanotechnologies are new approaches to research and development that concern the study of phenomena and manipulation of

 

materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where material properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale.

 

The research focuses on understanding, observing and controlling the properties of matter with lengths of between 1 and 100 nanometres is a new challenge for the research community and industry.One nano-metre is equal to one billionth of a metre, and is about the size of a small molecule.