Tiny, Risky, Unlabeled and You're Eating it

The last place we should be putting untested, unregulated nanoparticles is in our food. Yet, according to a groundbreaking new report by Friends of the Earth, many popular foods contain them, including Kraft Singles, Trix, and Hershey's. Even more disturbing, we found that the number of food products with risky nano-ingredients is up tenfold since the last Friends of the Earth report on this topic in 2008. These products are made by major companies including Kraft, General Mills, Hershey, Nestle, Mars, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Smucker's and Albertsons. Due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, it is likely that a far greater number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are currently on the market.

The report, "Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks: Nanomaterials rapidly entering food and farming," documents 94 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials -- including brand name products, such as Jet Puffed Marshmallows, Nestle Original Coffee Creamer, PowerAde and Trix cereal.

So what are these tiny new ingredients and why should we be concerned?

These new nano-ingredients differ significantly from larger particles of the same chemical composition, and new studies are adding to a growing body of scientific evidence indicating they may be more toxic to humans and the environment.

Nanoparticles can be more chemically reactive and more bioactive than larger particles. Because of their very small size, nanoparticles can more freely enter cells, tissue and organs. The same novel properties which offer food industry applications as potent nutritional additives, stronger flavorings and colorings or antibacterial ingredients for food packaging, may also result in greater toxicity for humans and the environment. Nanoparticles are risky because:

  • They have greater access to our bodies, and are generally more reactive, than larger particles of the same chemicals
  • Greater bioavailability and greater bioactivity may introduce new toxicity risks
  • They can compromise our immune system responses
  • They may have long-term pathological effects

Nanoparticles of silver, titanium dioxide, zinc and zinc oxide used used in nutritional supplements, food, food packaging and food contact materials, are highly toxic to cells in test tube and animal studies.

"Preliminary environmental studies also suggest that these substances may be toxic to ecologically-important species such as certain crustaceans--which are an important part of the food chain. Yet there is still no nanotechnology-specific regulation or safety testing required before manufactured nanomaterials can be used in food, food packaging, or agricultural products. Health experts have also raised concerns that the widespread use of nanosilver in consumer products will further increase the problem of antibiotic resistant superbugs."

Many of the products Friends of the Earth tested were found to contain nanomaterials, specifically titanium dioxide, which studies have found to cause a reaction from the body's immune defensive system. Recent studies indicate a connection between these particles and the onset or exacerbation of gastrointestinal inflammation.

What should food companies and government do?

"Given the potentially serious health and environmental risks associated with nanofoods, Friends of the Earth is calling for a moratorium on the further commercial release of food products, food packaging, food contact materials and agrochemicals that contain manufactured nanomaterials until nanotechnology-specific safety and labeling laws are established and the public is involved in decision making."

What should consumers do?

"Until we can move our government and companies to manage nanotechnology in a responsible and transparent manner, there are steps we can take to protect our health and the environment." It's important to "avoid eating highly processed foods and eat more fresh food instead. Processed foods not only have higher environmental costs of production and have lower nutritional value; they are also a big source of nanomaterials in foods." Whenever possible, support local food producers and buy directly from local farmers, butchers and bakers; consider joining a food co-operative or bulk-buying program.

Knowledge is power, and learning about risky food ingredients can set us on the path to better health. Here's to a future free of harmful ingredients in our food -- big and small.