The nanotechnology revolution and its impact on food

OLLINovember 25, 2012 


    An upcoming OLLI course, Nanotechnology and Your Food, will introduce participants to nanotechnology, some of its general applications and then to the proposed uses in foods and food packaging, as well as its regulation. This course will be held Wednesdays, Jan 9,16, 30 and Feb. 6 in the Penn State Outreach Building in Innovation Park. To register, contact OLLI at Penn State at (814) 867-4278 or online at OLLI at Penn State is a membership organization that provides affordable educational and social activities for adults.

Many of you have a product of the nanotechnology revolution in your pocket or your purse.

Your smart phone is smart partly because of nanotechnology.

A nanometer is 1-billionth of a meter and nanotechnology is defined as manipulating matter at the 10-100 nm range, a size smaller than most human cells.

This science of the ‘very small’ has allowed the faster transmission and greater storage of more information in smaller electronic devices.

The nanotechnology revolution was ignited over 50 years ago, when a scientist named Richard Feynman gave a lecture “There is plenty of room at the bottom” in which he outlined some fundamental ideas about nanotechnology.

In the early 1980’s, with the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope and production of fullerenes (buckyballs), which can be used to make carbon nanotubes, the science of manipulating materials at the nanoscale was off to a strong start.

Nanotechnology has had its greatest impact on material science, which has in turn produced significant changes in electronic devices and also in everyday materials like car bodies and sports equipment.

The new materials science building on the Penn State Campus has several areas devoted to just the science of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology may also provide important advancements in medicine and environmental science.

Nanotechnology has also caught the attention of food scientists.

Kraft Foods set up the first nanotechnology laboratory devoted to food applications in 1999 and in 2000 organized a consortium of research universities and laboratories to share ideas and information.

However, today the true extent of development and use of nanotechnology in food processing and manufacture is not known.

Of course, our bodies handle food nanomaterials every day as the foods we eat are reduced to the nanoscale within our digestive tract for absorption and metabolism.

In contrast, engineered nanomaterials that might be used in foods and packaging represent a new class of materials with enticing potential benefits as well as potential risks. Consumers need to be aware of this revolution and it consequences in order to make informed decisions about its products.

J. Lynn Brown, PhD, RD, retired as a nutrition specialist from the Food Science Department at Penn State in June 2012. She prepared consumer information on technology used in food production as part of her faculty assignment.

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