Applications of nanotechnology in food and agricultural fields
Nanotechnology is having an impact on several aspects of the food industry, from how food is grown to how it is packaged. Companies are developing nanomaterials that will make a difference not only in the taste of food, but also in food safety, and the health benefits food delivers.
Use of nanomaterials in food packaging is already a reality. One example is bottles made with nanocomposites that minimize the leakage of carbon dioxide out of the bottle; this increases the shelf life of carbonated beverages without having to use heavier glass bottles or more expensive cans. Another example is food storage bins with silver nanoparticles embedded in the plastic. The silver nanoparticles kill bacteria from any food previously stored in the bins, minimizing harmful bacteria.
There are other food packaging products currently under development. For example nanosensors in plastic packaging can detect gases given off by food when it spoils and the packaging itself changes color to alert us to food gone bad.
Nanosensors are being developed that can detect bacteria and other contaminates such as salmonella on the surface of food at a packaging plant. This will allow for frequent testing at a much lower cost than is incurred by sending samples to a lab for analysis. This point-of-packaging testing, if conducted properly, has the potential to dramatically reduce the chance of contaminated food reaching grocery store shelves.
There are also nanosensors being developed to detect pesticides on fruit and vegetables.
Nanomaterials are being developed to improve the taste, color, and texture of foods.
Nanoparticles are being used to deliver vitamins or other nutrients in food and beverages without affecting the taste or appearance. These nanoparticles actually encapsulate the nutrients and carry them through the stomach into the bloodstream. For many vitamins this delivery method also allows a higher percentage of the nutrients to be used by the body because, when not encapsulated by the nanoparticles, some nutrients would be lost in the stomach.
Researchers are working on pesticides encapsulated in nanoparticles; these only release pesticide in an insect’s stomach, which minimizes the contamination of plants themselves.
Another development being looked at is a network of nanosensors and dispensers throughout a food crop. The sensors recognize when a plant needs nutrients or water, before we could see any sign that the plant is deficient. The dispensers then release fertilizer, nutrients, or water as needed, optimizing the growth of each plant in the field one by one.