Awfully tiny things in food

Baroness Murphy

Heavens, it turns out I’ve been eating nanoparticles for lunch! I didn’t know they were naturally occurring in some foods; ricotta cheese for one. So my ravioli gnudi (which are largely ricotta and spinach and absolutely delicious) presumably had billions of them. How do I know this? Because the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee today published their second report on Nanotechnologies and Food,, a fascinating read from a group chaired by Lord Krebs. Much of the press coverage has picked up on the committee’s criticism of the food industry’s current reluctance to be transparent and honest about their research into the uses of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in food but one can surely understand their anxiety about the likely media response, given the Prince of Wales’ comments a couple of years ago on ‘nano-goo’ and the apparent lack of public understanding about what ‘GM’ means. The Committee argues that appearing to be secretive about its research “is exactly the type of behaviour which may bring about the public reaction it is trying to avert.” I fear the industry can’t win.

The report highlights that there are significant gaps in the understanding of how nanomaterials impact on the human body, and that it is not currently possible to predict what risks specific nanomaterials may present. There is only a limited amount of research looking at the toxicological impact of nanomaterials, and just one research team working on the impact of nanomaterials on the gut in the United Kingdom. The Committee calls on the Research Councils to establish more proactive forms of funding to encourage research bids which address the severe shortfalls in research required for the effective risk assessment of nanomaterials in food. It urges the Government to ensure that research is commissioned which focuses specifically on the behaviour of nanomaterials within the body and particularly the gut. The Research Councils however are under greater budget pressures than they have been for years, I suspect we will probably have to rely on industry to do most of it.

15 comments for “Awfully tiny things in food

  1. 08/01/2010 at 4:20 pm

    Will the EU allow nanobits into foodstuff with protected status eg designated origin?

  2. 08/01/2010 at 4:38 pm

    The Research Councils however are under greater budget pressures than they have been for years, I suspect we will probably have to rely on industry to do most of it.

    What could possibly go wrong here, after all?

    “Nano” is just another word for small – or at least a certain range of smallness. Is it really so surprising that lots of things are made up of lots of other small things?

    Really, “nanotechnology” is just a fancypants word for “really precise chemistry”.

    • 08/01/2010 at 4:40 pm

      Rats, forgot about the blockquote thing.

      Oh Hansard mods, would it be possible, if not to reinstate the tag in question, to at least parse the comment for unsupported html and throw it back if tags are unused, so that the user can edit, rather than just stripping them out and rendering quotes undifferentiated from comment text?

  3. Gar Hywel
    08/01/2010 at 6:40 pm

    This research must be linked to Gut and Skin flora, which I spent a few days recently, investigating. It is surprising how little we know about them.

    The yeast cultures sold by firm like Danlac are hugely varied, and numbered.

    The bread “mixes” sold by the wholesale flour merchants are highly suspect; a complex task working out precisely what the ingredients are in ornery language, again numbered, but bold claims of how wonderful they are for making bread.

    It is a question of knowing what the
    eu-bacteria are, and preferably sticking to
    what you know to be good and local.

    On a slightly different tack the purchase of pharmaceuticals from unknown and untested sellers on the internet, has caused at least two deaths last year to my certain knowledge, one to the daughter of a close friend of mine; nano-poisoning technology from Saudi Arabia. Somebody enjoying random killing amongst the Christian population of the Western world.

    It puts nano-techno in food in to perspective.

  4. Bedd Gelert
    08/01/2010 at 11:07 pm

    Baroness Murphy, May I hijack this thread with a suggestion for a topic for discussion and debate ?

    This question of ‘profiling’ at airports was also raised on Any Questions this evening and there was the usual partisan ‘playing to the gallery’ with either a definite yes or definite no.

    My view is that it is more subtle than that. I was shocked when Manchester introduced the body scanners for a trial, but thought that the British would be unlikely to wear that, and that it would not really overcome the inertia to new technology.

    But now we read that public opposition seems to have dropped hugely since Christmas and it is likely that many more scanners are going to appear at an airport near us soon.

    I’m not a frequent flyer so I guess I can be a bit sanguine about the risks. But I do think that, as with credit scoring, profiling is an inexact science but one which could be part of the mix in security of airports and aircraft.

    Even if potential terrorists knew that those buying one-way tickets, single people, people under the age of 30 or those from the Asian sub-continent or the Middle East were, say, 50% more likely to be picked out for an interview or more thorough search, it might act as a deterrent.

    This is NOT picking on people because of their religion – different parameters might be set depending on the ‘state of the threat’ and NOT everyone would be picked out.

    It would just be an enhancement to random stops which already take place, but focused on parameters which would be covert and vary depending on intelligence. Otherwise there could be ‘gaming’ of the system, as might occur if people knew what features lead to a higher credit score.

    Of course the point is that this would not be foolproof. You would not be stopping all and sundry. And if the terrorists observed the process dutifully, day in and day out for months they might work out the parameters and enlist someone outside them [such as a girlfriend, married woman or even dare I suggest a minor] to beat the system.

    But I think it is a debate we could usefully have now, so that we don’t see the same knee-jerk response to introducing scanners which have been admitted to only be 50-60% likely to have spotted the Christmas Day bomb plot.

    Irish people did not like being targeted during the Troubles, but as a Welsh person, if one of my countrymen had been involved in bombing, I would have been surprised if the police were told they could not focus more on me in the aftermath of an atrocity.

    Any thoughts ?

  5. Gar Hywel
    09/01/2010 at 10:56 am

    That is an interesting .pdf Baronessa, which I may look at, in more detail later. Thank you.

    The enthusiasm with which GPs promote skin complaints knowing full well that skin creams and lotions actually cause the complaints as often as cure them, makes one wonder whether
    attempting to control what happens to the flora in the gut, would be any more successful!

    The amount of unknown bacteria is about the same on the skin as it is in the gut. 90% unknown.

    I took the liberty of keeping bees some years ago, and developed my own Beeswax skin cream.

    The amount of beneficial bacteria in beeswax
    and in honey are phenomenal, even after considering the teeth plaque content of the honey!

    Propolis from the hive is also an amazing product, which is good for skin injuries and sore throats. All these things are used by the professional pharmacist in his potions and lotions.

    The best thing I have ever seen a bee collecting, was the tar from a roadside load of tarmac. Obviously this was wanted to make propolis in the hive, which is harvested to go in the tincture, to cure sore throats.

    Who is worried about gut flora after that?

    Just take the medicine! Argghh!

  6. Gar Hywel
    09/01/2010 at 10:07 pm

    “Somewhere between 300 and 1000 different species live in the gut, with most estimates at about 500. However, it is probable that 99% of the bacteria come from about 30 or 40 species. Fungi and protozoa also make up a part of the gut flora, but little is known about their activities”.

    I read also that about 17 genera are involved with skin flora; however many species.

    We know of many of the effects upon gut flora, such as the use of antibiotics, weakening their good value, but it is the listing of them which must be of some interest.

    The fact that new born babes do not have gut flora and they only start to acquire them when they are breast fed is a reminder of the
    extra-ordinary non communication of HIV from mother to child thru the placenta, and that some new born are entirely free of the disease that their mothers have, suggests that the gut flora is involved with the acquisition of the Immune virus.

    In which case identification of all these gut flora species might be useful for research!

    It might also be that skin flora would thus effect the chances of a new born babe, so all of those would have to be identified and classified too! About the same again!

    Of the 500 species, roughly mentioned above
    many of them would be/seem very similar indeed. Whether the genome researchers reclassify with any regularity I don’t know.

    They certainly do in classical botany!


  7. Gar Hywel
    09/01/2010 at 10:24 pm (PDF)

    COG Clusters of Orthologous groups.

    An answer then to the question what Nano-food-technologists think they are looking at, and how genomics may help them to do it.

    Whether the average 500 species above is shared by all of us, or that there is considerable overlap between individuals, and that two individuals might only have 50 species in common, depending perhaps on their
    geographical location, and food intake therefore, is open to speculation.

  8. Gar Hywel
    09/01/2010 at 10:59 pm

    My comments above apply in particular to item 4.11 in the research paper delivered.

    However I should point out that at a purely practical level, glass and Oak/Acacia barrels are still the ideal packaging medium for the fermentation and taste of wine, cider and spirits; ok so they are manufacturing toxins themselves, whilst all the packaging champions who have been cross examined, on the subject, are merely trying to make a better profit on their produce.

    I am very, very sceptical about the value of consumerist packaging.

    The best package for a banana is its skin; so for most other vegetables.

    The damage to gut flora done by eating all these packaged foods is what surely causes a good many of the modern and very nasty diseases. Quite how nobody knows.

    It is not the nano-packaging which causes it as much (although the idea of silver next to my food repels me entirely)as the nano-particles which the noble baroness thinks she has been eating in her completely innocent Italian home made Pasta!

    The effective use of the cellophane package in Super market vegetable provision can be very effective, provided the cellophane is removed before replacing in to the Fridge at the consumer end. If it is not removed the produce goes rotten very rapidly.

    Surely that is not the substance of a Peers’ discussion of nano-food-technology?!

    The use of cellophane for water cress packaging ensured last year that I ate about 20-30 mosquito larvae from the local beds which I would never, never have done before the packaging was introduced.

    It’s true I forgot my specs, but the packaging lured me in to the false notion that there was something hygienic about the product.

    If anything the product is less hygienic than it has ever been, and I know a thing or two about water cress, and its nematodes, by now.(I hope)

    The cress growers claim it is for hygiene but it ain’t! It is so they can sell less at a higher price to more people.


  9. Carl.H
    10/01/2010 at 1:00 pm

    The food industry is like every other it exists for profit.This fact sometimes means that profit is put before safety as in China and the melamine poisoning episodes.

    Every company`s dream is find something the public think they cannot do without, are addicted to. Tobacco and alcohol go someway to proving this, we can live happily without them, they are bad for health yet abolishing them seems impossible.

    Nanotechnology in food stuffs may open another door to those whose aim is purely driven by profit. As of yet I do not believe we fully understand the technology or it`s future implications. What may appear good at a given moment may not do in the future, thalidomide, DDT etc.

    It is indeed a hard call but we do need an independent third party to have privvy to all the information about the Nations foodstuffs and it`s technology. We do have to be on our guard against those, and there are a few, who would put profit first. It could take just one unethical Company, or indeed shoddy Company, to create a tragedy the like never seen before.

    A balance has to be found and perhaps,as it would seem, we need tighter controls as the USA appears to have. Government controls obviously have to be financed, in my mind this should be funded by the industries themselves by means of some type of taxation or licensing. We already see in our society things that appear to have benefit at present that may turn around and bite us in the future. Children glued to mobile phones, computers etc., we cannot be 100% sure about future effects of these things. Most things, we have to accept, appear safe at present but what of future risks ? Do we take the risk and advance…which would mostly be to do with profit since we`ve survived all this time without…whatever or do we stop where we are ? It`s a conundrum.

    Nanotechnology may well be the way we can see improved growth in population, with food for all but is that a good thing ? Ultimately it is proving that we cannot live with each other in ever decreasing confines of space and resources. Do I personally want the food industry, whose goal is profit, putting their little nanobots in my gut? No I do not but nor do I want to live to 150. Nature has a way of keeping all things balanced, try to get by her and ultimately she`ll trip you up and you`ll fall. Fact, the World is already overpopulated for the resources we use. Death is natures way of keeping her balance. Human nature, greed, avarice and violence are part of nature and her arsenal and at some point in our future will ensure natures balance is returned. The Horsemen of the apolocalypse are ourselves and one indeed maybe a nanotechnologist.

  10. Senex
    10/01/2010 at 9:46 pm

    I had a peek at the FDA site:

    “The FDA has not established its own formal definition, though the agency participated in the development of the NNI definition of “nanotechnology.”

    It seems the HoL report whilst useful may be too narrow in scope.

    Ref: FDA: Science and Research Special Topics: Nanotechnology

  11. Gar Hywel
    11/01/2010 at 10:46 am

    ” Really, “nanotechnology” is just a fancypants word for “really precise chemistry”. ”

    Tiny technology?

    There was an industry discussion on “irradiation” some years ago, which suddenly disappeared from the screens.

    Was that because the food giants discovered that nobody objected to it?

    Does Jack Cohen’s packaging function better than say Viva because it has been irradiated better?

  12. baronessmurphy
    11/01/2010 at 12:03 pm

    Bedd Gelert I shall pick up on your suggestion of commenting on security profiling.
    McDuff, As you probably realise I felt very much the same as you about nano things (‘they’re just very small’) but possibly there is an issue about material which may traverse easily the boundaries between cells where other larger particles cannot? Just as we might be more cautious about drugs that can readily cross the blood-brain barrier. It might not take much research to demonstrate that there isn’t a problem but surely its worth asking the question? Or Carl H and many others who feel deeply suspicious may not feel reassured. You can see I am talking here largely from ignorance but better scientific brains than mine worked on the Report from the S&T Committee and I think they are worth listening to.

    Apologies for the link not working. I just copied it straight from the official website.

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