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Nanotechnology - Opportunities and Risks

  By Amy Kosowski, M.S, LDN, December 4, 2006

In our modern world, new discoveries and innovative technologies are being introduced almost daily. Overall, these inventions are intended to save us time or money, improve products and their manufacture, enhance our health and, in some cases, can even save lives. One very recent and potentially powerful technology that has exploded onto the marketplace is Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has applications in numerous industries, including medicine, energy production, computers, water purification, functional foods, textiles, personal care products, and nutraceuticals. The possibilities are almost limitless. However, most people do not understand what Nanotechnology is or the extent of its possible impact on our lives.

Nanotechnology can be defined as technology that deals with materials that are smaller than 100 nanometers. Another definition of Nanotechnology is the art and science of manipulating matter at the nanoscale to create new and unique materials and products. How small is a nanometer? A nanometer is 1/100,000th of a millimeter – too small to be seen even with a basic electron microscope. These nanomaterials are often composed of compounds that have been used for many years, such as carbon, gold, lead, and various other metals. However, once these materials are reduced in size to below 100 nanometers (nm), they begin to display novel characteristics based on the quantum mechanical forces that are exhibited at this level. These quantum mechanical forces may make the material stronger, more conductive, better able to transfer heat, absorb light, have altered solubility properties, etc. The change in properties that occurs with the change in size is creating new potential applications for traditional materials, but also may create new health hazards.

As applied to the functional foods and nutraceuticals industries, Nanotechnology may perhaps be used to enhance flavor or texture. It could also be employed to improve nutrient absorption or bioavailability. In the area of topical body care products, Nanoparticles may improve a product’s penetration of the skin. While these possibilities sound promising and helpful, the possible downsides of this technology are not as obvious. In fact, how the application of nanotechnology to nutrients and food compounds will alter their chemical and biological properties is not well known at this time.

Many questions surrounding the widespread use of nano-sized particles in foods and nutraceuticals still need to be addressed by researchers. For example, it is known that some lipid-soluble vitamins are potentially toxic if absorbed rapidly or completely; therefore, does improving uptake of lipid-soluble vitamins present a potential problem? Will we need new Recommended Dietary Allowances and Upper Limits for nanoformulations of vitamins and minerals, because so much more is absorbed?

Beyond absorption issues, it is possible that nano-sized materials will have altered distribution, metabolism, and excretion properties, all of which may also alter functionality and even inherent toxicity of a substance. Still another issue, especially regarding topical body care products, is the penetration into cells and persistence of nanoparticles in the body. In short, there are many more questions about the far-reaching effects of Nanotechnology than there are answers, and more questions are arising as the technology develops.

With Nanotechnology moving out of the world of pure theory and onto the shelves of health food stores and supermarkets, we are all faced with decisions regarding whether or not to use Nanotech products. At NOW Foods, we are watching the Nanotech industry mature and waiting for basic and important questions regarding the safety of nanoparticles to be answered. The health and well-being of our customers is our primary concern. Nanotechnology research is still in its infancy, and while NOW Foods does not deny the possible positive implications of this technology, we are taking a conservative approach to the use of these ingredients. Our mission is to “Empower People to Live Healthier Lives,” and we want to ensure that all products sold by NOW Foods are consistent with our mission.


1. Maynard AD, Aitken RJ, Butz T, Colvin V, Donaldson K, Oberdorster G, Philbert MA, Ryan J, Seaton A, Stone V, Tinkle SS, Tran L, Walker NJ, Warheit DB. Safe handling of nanotechnology. Nature. 2006 Nov 16;444(7117):267-269.

2. Traynor K. FDA holds public meeting on nanotechnology. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2006 Nov 15;63(22):2175-7.

3. Matsudai M, Hunt G. Nanotechnology and public health. Nippon Koshu Eisei Zasshi. 2005 Nov;52(11):923-7.

4. Park JY, Li SF, Kricka LJ. Nanotechnologic nutraceuticals: nurturing or nefarious? Clin Chem. 2006 Feb;52(2):331-2.


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