Nanotechnology is now officially more than just food for thought. It's actual, stick-to-your ribs, tasty food -- on the shelves now with more on the shopping list.
Check the numbers. Estimates put the current global nano-food market at $2.6 billion right. By 2010, experts say it could top $20 billion. Who's setting the menu? Major corporations around the world and a number of smaller companies, as well. One estimate suggests more the 200 companies have current research projects, including five of the top 10 food giants.
So what is nanotechnology bringing to the table? We're all accustomed to enriched flour, energy bars and milk with vitamins in it. Nanotechnology is making that kind of plus an everyday meal. For examples, a German company is offering food and beverage manufacturers a way to add antioxidants to food using nanotechnology. The technology encapsulates the antioxidant into nanoscale capsules so small they're invisible. The result? You can get your health boost without changing the look, feel or taste of your favorite food. The technology is both water soluble and fat soluble so it's as useful in power drinks as it is in ice cream. What's next? Look for the addition of other vitamins -- Vitamin C or E -- to traditional foods. A company in Australia is adding nanocapsules of Omega-3 fatty acids to white bread. Diners get the health benefits of fish oil without that fishy taste. And an Israeli company is already marketing a nano-enhanced canola oil added health benefits.
In the longer term, the possibilities get positively delicious. Imagine how nano-scale flavor capsules could give you all the taste of chocolate without all the calories -- or cost? Several large companies are pursuing nano-emulsifiers that help improve the texture uniformity of food. Sometimes called "mouth feel," it means your low-fat ice cream would have the texture of the real stuff. Or your peanut butter would spread more easily without more fat.
And here's a treat. A major food giant is looking at nanotechnology that will make food "interactive." Someday soon, you could choose the taste and vitamins you want after you buy a product. Maybe you'll choose the color and flavor of your food right at the time you get hungry or thirsty. Orange or green? Banana or vanilla? With Or, you could turn up the calcium for bones or the folic acid for memory. There's even some longer-range research into designing foods that include nanosenors. They'll know if you're low on certain nutritional elements and trigger their release.
There is nanotechnology cooking in food packaging industry, too, to keep food fresh and safe longer, and also improve the taste. It begins with beer bottles that extend the shelf life of the contents. Nano-clay particles in plastic bottles block the leakage of carbon dioxide out of the bottle, which is a key factor in beer going bad. The bottles do the job of more expensive glass or cans, and are practically shatterproof. Cheers! There's also work on adding nano-barriers to plastic food wrap. The benefits? Longer shelf life, of course. Plus, the innovation could prevent "taste scalping," the food industry's term for food that takes on the wrapper's taste. And in the long run? There's a significant amount of development of smart sensors that could warn consumers when food has spoiled.
We can also take see nanotechnology improving our food supply at the other end of the production line, helping farms grow higher yields and help reduce release of dangerous pesticides into the environment. Nanotechnology may soon provide sensors that can alert the farmer that certain crops are low on water or nutrients, long before there are wilted leaves or rotten fruit. They may even be combined into a nutrient- and moisture-releasing formula. Each plant would get exactly the individual care it needs. And pesticides? Imagine this. Encapsulated nanoparticles that don't release pesticide into the soil -- only into the insect's stomach.
Have I whetted you appetite? Good. As with every manufacturing arena, nanotechnology brings untold benefits to the table. It's time for your organization to order up a global-size portion.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].