The problem with nano-packages is that their powerful payloads may cause harm to those who eat them in their food.
With the arrival of globalization and due to monopolistic practices and technological advances, our food supply became dependent on a global system of production, distribution and manufacturing. Today, food is not anymore what we plant and harvest, but what others create in a lab, often times without the proper supervision and almost always without adequate testing.
If in the four previous articles of the Chemical Reality Series the point was to warn people about chemicals that reach our food supply, this one is a wake up call for anyone who is concerned with their health, even if health is minimally important.
As we have learned, unwanted ingredients are not only contaminating our food, but they are actually being used to test how humans react to their ingestion on what can be called a worldwide, open air experiment.
Recently, the organization Friends of Earth (FoE) published a report titled Small Ingredients, Big Risks, which details how the food industry uses technology to secretly add unlabeled metals such as silver to well-known products like cheese, chocolate, milk, soda, candy, soy, almond, and rice beverages, mints, gum, popcorn, salad dressing and oils, yogurt, cereal, crackers, pasta, and sports drinks. These products are manufactured by some of the biggest names in the food industry, including Kraft, General Mills, Hershey, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Smucker’s and Albertsons.
Since the use of nano-ingredients is such a novel practice, companies using them in our food do so without limitation. As of today, there are no laws that describe the appropriate way in which nano-particles should be used in food products. There are no parameters for adding them and no obligation for testing their effects on us. What researchers have found is that scientific evidence indicates these nano-ingredients may indeed be toxic to humans and the environment.
“Nanotechnology is a powerful emerging technology for taking apart and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular level. Nanoscale — or extremely tiny — materials now show up in a broad array of consumer products. Nanoparticles show novel physicochemical properties in comparison to larger sized particles of the same substance. While nanotechnology is being touted as a potential catalyst for the next industrial revolution and could have far-ranging impacts, the field is being commercialized largely outside of public view or debate, and with few regulations to protect workers, the public and the environment,” explains Friends of Earth in its report.
Unlike other environmentalist and consumer advocacy organizations, Friends of Earth is asking governments and policymakers to begin regulating the nano-tech industry as a precautionary measure. As in the case of genetically engineered organisms used in crops like corn, sugar cane, soy and others, using nano-ingredients in food products seems to be guided by a desire to increase corporate profits above everything else. As it happens in the GMO debate, calls are being made to make it mandatory to label products whose ingredients include nano-particles that are suspected of causing harm to humans and the environment.
“Our current focus is to achieve regulations on the use of nano-materials in food, sunscreens and cosmetics — and on the widespread and increasing use of nano-silver, a powerful germ-killer that can be found in everything from toys to clothes to toothpaste,” warns FoE. “Studies indicate that manufactured nano-materials used in sunscreens (such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide) have the potential to harm our health. These sunscreens can also harm our environment when they wash off of people while in the shower or swimming, allowing potentially toxic nano-materials to be absorbed up the food chain from smaller to larger organisms and to damage microbes that are helpful to ecosystems.”
Friends of Earth is part of Friends of Earth International, a network of at least 2 million environmental activists that spreads to over 70 countries.
One of the main concerns about nano-ingredients in food products is the exponential growth in their use. According to Friends of Earth, the use of nano-ingredients has grown tenfold in only six years, and the number of companies investing in this technology is growing as fast as nano-particles are used to manufacture processed food. Some 200 transnational corporations all over the world are investing millions of dollars in the development of nano-tech food, in an attempt to get a piece of the US$20.4 billion nano-tech food market.
As you may suspect, not as much money is being invested by transnationals in studying the harm that nano-metals, for example, could cause to human health. Despite the clear disregard for the well-being of their customers, there are other groups that are doing a fair amount of work to unveil the details that the nano-tech and food industries don’t want you to know about. “An increasingly large body of peer-reviewed evidence indicates some nano-materials may harm human health and the environment,” says FoE.
Some suspected consequences of the ingestion of nano-particles used in processed foods originated on their ability to be more chemically reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same chemicals. Their very small size also provides nano-particles with greater access to our bodies, which allows them to penetrate cells, tissues and organs. The report published by FoE says that “greater bio-availability and greater bio-activity may introduce new toxicity risks” and that these nano-particles “can compromise our immune system response.”
Apparently, nano-materials have properties that open new possibilities for the food industry that include being used as so-called nutritional additives, stronger ﬂavorings and colorings, antibacterial ingredients, and others. The problem is that the properties that seem to be advantageous for transnational trusted with making the food that is eaten by billions of people may also result in greater toxicity for the environment and consequently for humans. The toxicity threat posed by nano-ingredients in processed food is suspected to express their pathological effects in the long term, which makes it difficult for physicians and patients to pinpoint them as the cause of disease.
Besides using silver nano-particles, processed foods contain titanium dioxide, zinc, zinc oxide and others that are simply labeled as nutritional supplements. These materials are “highly toxic to human cells in test tube and animal studies,” says FoE. Other environmental studies found that the substances may be toxic other species that are important to the food chain. In spite of all the unknowns, the food and nano-tech industries began their adventure without any regulation or safety rules before adding nano-materials to processed foods, the packaging and even to agricultural products that are later used on crop plantations.
According to Friends of Earth, health experts are also concerned with the use of nano-silver in some consumer products because it may increase the problem of antibiotic-resistant bugs. But the most concerning of all the tiny ingredients is nano-titanium dioxide. Its nanoparticles are immunologically active, that is, they cause a reaction from the body’s defensive system.
More recent studies concluded that nano-titanium dioxide particles may play a significant role in the “exacerbation of gastrointestinal inflammation” because it adsorbs bacterial fragments and then carries them across the gastro-intestinal tract. Furthermore, nano-particles and nanotechnology as a whole pose even greater challenges to developing truly sustainable food and farming practices. Because nano-particles’s increase the lifetime of some crops, the use of these ingredients in food may come as a booster to promote the transport of food products — both fresh and processed — to longer distances. The model of treating fresh food to make them more resistant to the environment around it is the one preferred by the food industry, and its ability to make food less perishable would concentrate even more corporate control of global agriculture.
An additional concern is the use of nano-agrochemicals on farms and their release into the environment. As things stand now, agrochemicals are already polluting soils and water sources, causing significant damage to the ecosystems. The same agrochemicals and ingredients like BPA, Dioxins and Atrazine are linked to more incidence of cancer and reproductive problems. The use of nano-materials and consequently nano-agrochemicals would only pile up on environmental contamination.
Friends of Earth is asking for a moratorium nano-materials used on food products, packaging, and any other item that comes in contact with food products at least until safety studies are conducted to determine what needs to be done about the use of nanotechnology in the manufacturing of processed foods. Specifically, FoE recommends that all nano-materials be regulated as new substances. That includes:
• All manufactured nanomaterials must be subject to safety assessments as new substances, even where the properties of their larger scale counterparts are well known.
• All deliberately manufactured nanomaterials must be subject to rigorous nano-speciﬁc health and environmental impact assessment and demonstrated to be safe prior to approval for commercial use in foods, food packaging, food contact materials or agricultural applications.
• Assessments must be based on the precautionary principle and the onus must be on manufacturers to comprehensively demonstrate the safety of their product. No data, no market.
• Safety assessment must be based on the nano content of products, not marketing claims.
• Safety assessment must include the product’s entire life cycle.
On the side of industry, Friends of Earth recommends that companies “respect people’s right to healthy foods, in which all ingredients have been proven safe.” To that end, food manufacturers and others who profit from the sale of nano-food should stop selling it as well as using nano-materials in packaging or any other material that comes in contact with processed food sold to consumers. The same practice should be true to nano-agrochemicals.
As for the rest of us, the only way we can affect change in the way nano-materials are used in food products is by asking and if necessary demanding the nano-tech and food industries to stop using these particles until they are deemed safe, asking government agencies to study and regulate the use of nano-materials and more importantly, to vote with our money. If neither government nor the food industry wishes to change the way we are being used in the largest mass experiment ever performed, we can always choose not to buy products from transnationals whose processed foods are contaminated with nano-metals or nano-chemicals.
Luis R. Miranda is the Founder and Editor of The Real Agenda. His 16 years of experience in Journalism include television, radio, print and Internet news. Luis obtained his Journalism degree from Universidad Latina de Costa Rica, where he graduated in Mass Media Communication in 1998. He also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting from Montclair State University in New Jersey. Among his most distinguished interviews are: Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres and James Hansen from NASA Space Goddard Institute. Read more about Luis.