Nanotechnology is an emerging science and, if used to develop novel foods and processes, approval would be required under the 'Novel Foods Regulation' (Regulation (EC) No 258/97) to ensure products are safe. Nanotechnology is the manufacture and use of materials and structures at the nanometre scale (a nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre).

The Novel Foods Regulation can be found on the European Commission website via the link in the column to the right.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology can be defined as the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanometre scale. It covers a very wide range of activities, so it is probably more correct to refer to 'nanotechnologies'.

Nanomaterials have been defined by the Royal Society as having one dimension less than 100 nanometres, but this is not a rigid definition and may change as the science evolves.

There is increasing interest in the nanoscale because properties of such materials can be very different from those at the larger scale, and potentially very useful. This can be because materials have a relatively larger surface area, which can make them more chemically reactive. Materials at this scale can also have different optical, electrical or magnetic behaviour.

The types of material produced can be at the nanoscale in one dimension (very thin coatings), two dimensions (nanowires and nanotubes) or three dimensions (nanoparticles, such as very fine powder preparations). Nanotechnologies are not new – chemists have been making polymers based on nanoscale sub-units for many years and we are also exposed to nanoparticles in daily life (such as from vehicular exhaust emissions).

Nanotechnology and food

In their widest sense, nanotechnology and nanomaterials are a natural part of food processing and conventional foods, because the characteristic properties of many foods rely on nanometre sized components (such as nanoemulsions and foams). However, recent technological developments lead the way for manufactured nanoparticles to be added to food. These could be finely divided forms of existing ingredients, or completely novel chemical structures.

Assessing new food technologies

The Food Standards Agency is the UK body responsible for the assessment of novel foods. If a company wants authorisation to market food produced using nanotechnology the Agency is obliged to assess the food safety implications. The FSA will not assess the safety of using nanotechnology in the food chain unless it is asked to do so.

During any such safety assessment, the Agency will consult an independent advisory committee, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). The ACNFP comprises experts who advise the Agency on a wide range of new foods and food technologies.

The assessment of the food or food ingredient includes details of the composition, nutritional value, metabolism, intended use and the level of microbiological and chemical contaminants. Where appropriate, this might also include studies into the potential for toxic, nutritional and allergenic effects. Details of the manufacturing process used to process the food or food ingredient are also considered, because novel food production processes can render a food ‘novel’ if it alters the final composition of the food. The assessment of nanomaterials will follow the guidance issued by the European Food Safety Authority in May 2011 (see the 'Risk assessment' section below).

As well as carrying out the scientific safety assessment, the committee would also consider consumer concerns and ethical issues.

FSA research

Research completed in 2008
New materials that are manufactured with small particles that measure up to 100 nanometres in diameter may exhibit novel properties. Two Agency research projects were completed in 2008. One project gathered information on new and potential applications of this technology in the UK to materials and articles in contact with food specifically in the context of potential chemical migration into food. More information and the results of this research (project code: A03063) can be found at the link towards the end of this page.

The second project carried out an assessment of the potential use of nanomaterials as food additives or food ingredients. Consumer safety and regulatory implications arising from potential uses were considered. More information and the results of this research (project code: A01057) can be found at the link towards the end of this page.

Research that started in 2010
The Agency has commissioned two research projects to look at the ways in which nanomaterials enter the human body and what happens to them once they are there. More information about this research (project codes T01061 and T01062) can be found at the links towards the end of this page. In addition, the Agency is jointly funding a project on the characterisation, detection and measurement of nanoparticles in food. More information about this research (project code: G03033) can be found at the link towards the end of this page.

Other FSA activities

Nanotechnologies and Food Discussion Group
The aim of the group is to help the Agency take forward some of the recommendations from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee 2010 report into nanotechnologies and food, and to exchange information between different sectors within the nanotechnologies and food groups.

The group has discussed possible ways to take forward recommendations from the House of Lords report, including:

  • intelligence gathering to determine what, if any, nanotechnology research is being carried out by the food industry
  • ways in which to develop a register of nanotechnology-enabled foods and food contact materials on the UK market

More information about the group and minutes of its meetings can be found below.

About the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology inquiry
In February 2009, the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology launched an inquiry into nanotechnologies and food. The Agency and other relevant bodies were called to give evidence. In January 2010, the committee published its report on the inquiry. The report, which can be found under ‘External links’ towards the end of this page, made a total of thirty two recommendations and conclusions. The Government response to the committee’s report, which was published on 25 March 2011, can also be found under 'External links'.

Consumer engagement and public attitudes
The FSA commissioned TNS-BMRB, an independent research company, to carry out research into UK consumer awareness and attitudes of nanotechnologies in the food sector. The research, which was conducted between November 2010 and February 2011, and published in April 2011, revealed that consumer awareness about nanotechnologies in relation to food was generally low. Consumers were concerned about safety, particularly long term safety, and impacts on the environment. There was a greater acceptance of certain types of potential applications than others and a general scepticism about industry’s motives for developing these technologies. Overall, consumers wanted more information and transparency. The full research report can be found at the link towards the end of this page.

Risk assessment

European Food Safety Authority activity
In February 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its opinion on the potential risks arising from nanoscience and nanotechnologies in food and feed. The main conclusions from the opinion are:

  • the current risk assessment paradigm is appropriate for nanomaterials
  • there are limited data on oral exposure to nanomaterials and any consequent toxicity
  • there are limited methods to characterise, detect, and measure nanomaterials in food/feed

Toxicological and toxicokinetic profiles of nanomaterials cannot be determined by extrapolation from data on their equivalent non-nano forms. A case by case approach is needed. Read the opinion on the EFSA website.

Risk assessment guidance
Building on its first opinion, in May 2011 EFSA published a guidance document for the risk assessment of engineered nanomaterials in food, food contact materials, animal feed and pesticides. Read the guidance on the EFSA website. EFSA’s guidance will be used whenever products of nanotechnology are evaluated for food or feed applications in the EU. An FSA expert was part of the EFSA group that drew up the guidance.

Nanotechnologies network
The Agency is represented on a nanotechnologies network that EFSA set up in February 2011. This network provides a platform for the exchange of information and will help to harmonise risk assessment approaches across EU member states. Read the agenda and minutes of the first meeting of the network on the EFSA website.

Further information

More information about nanotechnology and food can be found at the link below, in a paper sent to the FSA Board in April 2006 and in the written evidence that the Agency submitted to the House of Lords inquiry in March 2009.

Further information about nanotechnology can be found in a report presenting the findings of a review to identify potential gaps in regulation or risk assessment relating to the use of nanotechnologies and food. See the report, which the FSA consulted on in 2006, at the link below. In addition, see the summary of responses to the consultation, published in August 2008.

Related pages

More in this section