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Nanotechnology and its applications in

the food sector
Nesli Sozer and Jozef L. Kokini
Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, 211B Mumford Hall, 1301 W Gregory Drive, Urbana, IL 61801, USA

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are new frontiers of oxygen-eliminating enzyme [5]. By contrast, self assembly
this century. Their applications to the agriculture and and self organization are concepts derived from biology
food sector are relatively recent compared with their use that have inspired a bottom-up food nanotechnology. The
in drug delivery and pharmaceuticals. Smart delivery of organization of casein micelles or starch and the folding of
nutrients, bioseparation of proteins, rapid sampling of globular proteins and protein aggregates are examples of
biological and chemical contaminants and nanoencap- self-assembly structures that create stable entities. Self
sulation of nutraceuticals are some of the emerging organization on the nanometer scale can be achieved by
topics of nanotechnology for food and agriculture. setting a balance between the different non-covalent forces
Advances in technologies, such as DNA microarrays, [6].
microelectromechanical systems and microfluidics, will Owing to the greater surface area of nanoparticles per
enable the realization of the potential of nanotechnology mass unit, they are expected to be more biologically active
for food applications. In this review, we intended to than larger sized particles of the same chemical compo-
summarize the applications of nanotechnology relevant sition. This offers several perspectives for food appli-
to food and nutraceuticals together with identifying the cations. Nanoparticles can, for instance, be used as
outstanding challenges. bioactive compounds in functional foods [7]. Bioactive
compounds that can be found naturally in certain foods
Introduction have physiological benefits and might help to reduce the
Nanoscience and nanotechnology have already been risk of certain diseases, including cancer. By reducing
applied in various fields, such as computer electronics, particle size, nanotechnology can contribute to improve
communication, energy production, medicine and the food the properties of bioactive compounds, such as delivery
industry. The nanoscale devices are often manufactured properties, solubility, prolonged residence time in the
with the view to imitate the nanodevices found in nature gastrointestinal tract and efficient absorption through
and include proteins, DNA, membranes and other natural cells [8]. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, probiotics,
biomolecules [1,2]. prebiotics, vitamins and minerals have found their appli-
In todays world, food materials are often considered not cations in food nanotechnology as bioactive compounds [9].
only a source of nutrients but also as having to contribute In the food industry, several novel applications of nano-
to the health of consumers. Most of the nanoparticles used technologies have become apparent, including the use of
traditionally belong to the group of colloids (i.e. emulsions, nanoparticles, such as micelles, liposomes, nanoemulsions,
micelles, mono- and bi-layers). One of the first colloidal biopolymeric nanoparticles and cubosomes, as well as the
gold dispersions was prepared by Michael Faraday in the development of nanosensors, which are aimed at ensuring
middle of the 18th century. The particles were attracted to food safety [1013]. Worldwide sales of nanotechnology
each other through Van der Waals forces, which give them products to the food and beverage packaging sector
colloidal stability. In colloidal particles, steric stabilization increased from US$ 150 million in 2002 to US$ 860 million
is achieved by adsorbing polymers and surfactants on the in 2004 and are expected to reach to US$ 20.4 billion by
surface. Nanoparticles could be further stabilized by coat- 2010 [14]. However, despite the increased marketing
ing them with molecules that can form chemical bonds [3]. efforts in the nanotechnology sector, research into nano-
For food applications, nanotechnology can be applied by technology of food and food-related products is only just
two different approaches, either bottom up or top down beginning to develop [7]. Some examples of the use of
(Table 1). The top-down approach is achieved basically by nanotechnology in food products are cooking oils that
means of a physical processing of the food materials, such contain nutraceuticals within nanocapsules, nanoencapsu-
as grinding and milling. For example, dry-milling technol- lated flavor enhancers and nanoparticles that have the
ogy can be used to obtain wheat flour of fine size that has a ability to selectively bind and remove chemicals from food
high water-binding capacity [4]. This technology has been (Nanotechnology in agriculture and food, available at
used to improve antioxidant activity in green tea powder The main reasons for the late
[5]. As the powder size of green tea is reduced to 1000 nm incorporation of food into the nanotechnology sector are
by dry milling, the high ratio of nutrient digestion and issues associated with the possible labeling of the food
absorption resulted in an increase in the activity of an products and consumer-health aspects.
In fact there are no worldwide accepted rules or regu-
Corresponding author: Kokini, J.L. ( lations for nanotechnology. In a survey performed by Israel
82 0167-7799/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.tibtech.2008.10.010 Available online 8 January 2009
Review Trends in Biotechnology Vol.27 No.2

Table 1. Range of sizes of nanomaterials in the food sector tection (e.g. water purification) and in delivery of nutrients
Structures Diameter or length (nm) (Conventional and nano-based water technologies, avail-
DNA 12
able at [7,1517].
Glucose 2175
Liposome 3010000
In this review, we focus on the aspects of nanotechnol-
LDH 40300 ogy that are related to food quality and the development of
Amylopectin 44200 smart foods and food packaging materials, as well as the
Casein micelle 60100 use of nanosensors for the detection of microbial and
PLA nanosphere 100300 pesticide contamination. We will also discuss the implica-
Zein 200
tions of food nanotechnology and identify current problem
Nanosensors <1000 areas in nanotechnology in view of the potential risks of
nanomaterials for health and the environment, as well as
regulatory issues and public perception.
and the USA in March 2006, it was found that over 200
manufacturers currently market products identified as Nanotechnology and food packaging
nanoproducts. Approximately 60 of these products were Nanoparticles for food packaging
for health and fitness and 9% were for food and beverage Bionanocomposites are hybrid nanostructured materials
products [7]. Despite the lack of unifying nanotechnology with improved mechanical, thermal and gas barrier prop-
guidelines, manufacturers nevertheless have to deal with erties [1822]. The use of bionanocomposites for food
existing general regulations for food products and the packaging not only protects the food and increases its shelf
introduction of a new nanoingredient can be difficult and life but can also be considered a more environmentally
time consuming. For this reason, most expected nanoap- friendly solution because it reduces the requirement to use
plications in the food market will probably occur in food plastics as packaging materials (Figure 2). Most of the
packaging and only few in actual food products. traditional packaging materials are made from nondegrad-
Already, several applications of nanotechnology are able materials, which increase environmental pollution in
available (Figure 1). Up to now, most of the research on addition to consuming fossil fuels for their production.
nanotechnology focused on the electronics, medicine and However, current alternative biodegradable films exhibit
automation sector. The knowledge gained from these sec- poor barrier and mechanical properties and these proper-
tors could be adapted for the use of food and agriculture ties need to be improved considerably before they could
products, such as for applications in food safety (e.g. detect- replace traditional plastics [23,24] and thus help to man-
ing pesticides and microorganisms), in environmental pro- age the worlds waste problem [25].
Biodegradability of a packaging material can be
enhanced with the introduction of inorganic particles, such
as clay, into the biopolymeric matrix and can also be
controlled with surfactants that are used for the modifi-
cation of layered silicate. The use of inorganic particles also
makes it possible to introduce multiple functionalities,
which might help to improve the delivery of fragile micro-
nutrients within edible capsules [2527].

Figure 1. Potential applications of nanotechnology in the food and food-packaging

industries. Applications in food packaging are considered highly promising
because they can improve the safety and quality of food products. This includes
intelligent packaging, which is reactive to the environment and active packaging, Figure 2. Representation of the formation of bionanocomposites. Besides their
which is able to interact with the food product. Extensive use of nanoadditives to improved material properties, biodegradability makes them an environmentally
the food itself is less likely in the near future owing to safety concerns. friendly alternative to traditional packaging.

Review Trends in Biotechnology Vol.27 No.2

Figure 3. Illustration of different types of composite that can arise from the interaction between layered silicates and polymers. (a) Phase-separated composite
(microcomposite). (b) Intercalated composite (nanocomposite). (c) Exfoliated composite (nanocomposite). Reproduced with permission from [27].

Another approach to improve the properties of biode- stiffness and water and gas permeability even at low levels
gradable films is the use of hybrid organicinorganic sys- of 1 to 5 vol % [5]. Silicates consist of cristalline layers with
tems and, in particular, those containing layered silicates. 1 nm in thickness and a diameter range of 30 to 2000 nm
Hybrid composites, such as layered silicates embedded in a [26]. The silicate layers in nanocomposites are able to
polymeric matrix, improve stability and their biodegrad- control the diffusion rate through their tortuous pathway
ability can be fine tuned by varying the amount of solvents [25]. They can aggregate within the matrix in three differ-
used, which might further expand the possible uses of ent forms, as phase-separated, intercalated or exfoliated
edible and biodegradable films [19]. nanocomposites (Figure 3). Exfoliated nanocomposites
Zein, a prolamin and the major component of corn have the greatest ability to improve the tensile strength
protein, has been an important material in science and of the film in which they are incorporated [27].
industry owing to its unique properties and molecular Nanoscale fillers usually consist of nanofibers, nano-
structure. By dissolving zein, either in ethanol or in whiskers or nanotubes but can also be made out of solid-
acetone, biodegradable zein films with good tensile and layered silicate structures. Among the nanofillers, only the
water-barrier properties can be obtained [2832]. solid-layered inorganic clays have so far been used in the
Nanotechnology approaches are expected to yield new packaging industry because they are cheap and easy to
applications for zein in specialty foods and in the biode- process; the first example was a nylonclay hybrid [36].
gradable plastics industry. Zein can form a meshwork Layered double hydroxides (LDHs) are another type of
consisting of tubular structures, which can be microbiolo- nanoparticle that could be used as nanofillers for polymer
gically resistant and inert, for example, after treatment matrixes [37]. They are able to form positively charged
with formaldehyde [28,33,34]. However, zein nanobeads or layers within a 3D network of interconnected silicate layer,
nanoparticles can be used as edible carriers for flavor which might explain the improved mechanical properties
compounds or for encapsulation of nutraceuticals, as well of the resulting material. For this reason, LDHs could
as to improve the strength of plastic and bioactive food replace conventional supporting matrices in applications
packages [28,3335]. Controlling the uniformity and in which mechanical resistance is of particular importance
organization of zein films at the nanolevel are crucial in [25,37].
terms of mechanical and tensile properties [31]. In an Another important property of any food packaging is its
attempt to control the surface morphology of zein films, ability to act as a barrier to mass transfer on a food product.
Shi et al. [35] tested different solvents and found that films The components of biodegradable films that are respon-
generated in acetic acids were smoother and structurally sible for barrier function are usually polysaccharides and/
more homogenous than films obtained from ethanol as a or lipids. So far, only a few studies have investigated the
solvent. possible incorporation of nanoparticles in packaging, for
One possibility to increase the barrier properties of zein example, the introduction of clays, with the aim to improve
polymers is treatment with stable silicate complexes (mon- the physical properties of these films [3840].
tmorillonite, hectorite and saponite) [29,30]. These plate- Nanotechnology has already led to several innovations
let-like structured silicate complexes disperse in polymer in the packaging of food products and among these is the
matrixes and are therefore able to improve their strength, use of nanotubes [41,42]. A nanotube is a nanometer-scale

Review Trends in Biotechnology Vol.27 No.2

Figure 4. Representation of the self-assembly of partially hydrolysed a-lactalbumin into nanotubes in the presence of Ca2+. The transmission-electron micrograph on the
right shows negatively stained a-lactalbumin nanotubes. Micrograph reproduced with permission from [46].

wire-like structure and most frequently composed of car- agents in a biopolyester matrix where they formed nano-
bon [42]. Carbon nanotubes can be incorporated into poly- composite structures [52,53]. Cabedo et al. showed that the
mer structures (liquids, solutions, melts, gels, amorphous addition of nanoclays, in this case kaolinite nanofillers, to
and crystalline matrices) to increase their mechanical PLA films improved both thermal stability and mechanical
properties in terms of tensile strength and elasticity properties without decreasing barrier properties. These
[43]. The information obtained from these studies can be positive results are expected to increase the potential
used to help to develop new applications of nanotubes for food-packaging applications of these polymers [53].
the food sector [44].
Particularly relevant to the food sector is the possibility Advantages of nanomaterials in food-packaging
to obtain nanotubes from milk protein a-lactalbumin by applications
partial hydrolysis (Figure 4). The resulting a-lactalbumin Bioactive packaging materials need to be able to keep
nanotubes are able to increase viscosity owing to their high bioactive compounds, such as prebiotics, probiotics, encap-
aspect ratio (i.e. large surface area) and stiffness, which sulated vitamins or bioavailable flavonoids, in optimum
requires less protein [45,46]. In addition, these high condition until they are released in a controllable manner
protein-density nanotubes could also be used as thickener into the food product [50,54,55]. Bioactive-packaging
alternatives [46]. Moreover, a-lactalbumin nanotubes have materials can help to control oxidation of food stuffs and
cavities of 8 nm in diameter, which might enable the to prevent the formation of off-flavors and undesirable
binding of food components, such as vitamins or enzymes. textures of food. Bioactive compounds that are encapsu-
These cavaties could also be used to encapsulate and lated into the packaging itself are a promising approach
protect nutraceuticals or to mask undesirable flavor or because this would allow the release of the active com-
aroma compounds [46]. Because these nanotubes consist pounds in a controllable manner. Several already-
of milk protein, they are considered food-grade materials, approved food additives could be used for such nanoencap-
which should make their introduction into the market sulation, including carrageenan, chitosan, gelatin, polylac-
place relatively easy and might facilitate widespread appli- tic acid, polyglycolic acid and alginate [50,56,57].
cations in nanoencapsulating of nutrients, supplements
and pharmaceuticals. Nanosensors
In addition to food packaging, food preservation is also of
Natural biopolymers great importance for the food industry. Food spoilages can
Starch and its derivatives are other important natural be detected with so-called nanosensors, for example, an
polymers that could be further improved through nano- array of thousands of nanoparticles designed to fluoresce in
technology approaches. After extrusion, the starch is typi- different colors on contact with food pathogens. Available
cally converted to a thermoplastic material with low nanosensor types and their potential applications in the
mechanical resistance and poor protection against oxygen food sector are summarized in Figure 5. Taking into
and moisture [4750]. Park et al. prepared hybrids of account the crucial importance of time in food micro-
thermoplastic starch (TPS) with nanoclay and investigated biology, the main aim of nanosensors is to reduce the time
the resulting properties. They found that the strong inter- for pathogen detection from days to hours or even minutes
action between the TPS and the nanoclay improved tensile [58]. Such nanosensors could be placed directly into the
strength and lowered water-vapor permeability compared packaging material, where they would serve as electronic
with native TPS matrix [51]. tongue or noses by detecting chemicals released during
Biopolyesters are another important class of biodegrad- food spoilage [59,60]. Other types of nanosensors are based
able polymers formed from biological monomers, including on microfluidics devices [61] and can also be used to detect
polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) and pathogens efficiently in real time and with high sensitivity.
polycaprolacton (PCL). Biopolyesters are biodegradable A major advantage of microfluidic sensors is their minia-
and biocompatible and can be formed into films or molded ture format and their ability to detect compounds of in-
into objects [24]. However, biopolyester applications in the terest rapidly in only microliters of required sample
food-packaging industry have some important limitations volumes, which has already led to widespread applications
that are caused by their relatively poor gas-barrier proper- in medical, biological and chemical analysis [62,63].
ties and brittleness. In an attempt to overcome these Silicon-based microfluidic systems have proven popular
limitations, nanoclays have been used as supportive filling in the so-called laboratory-on-a-chip technology [64].

Review Trends in Biotechnology Vol.27 No.2

Figure 5. Types of nanosensors and examples of their application in the food sector.

Recently, Bodor et al. have used several food additives, cies in dependence on the biomass of the pathogenic
including benzoate, sorbate, p-hydroxybenzoic acid esters organisms. A European Union-funded project called Bio-
and glutamate, to evaluate the performance of different Finger developed a nanocantilever device that could be
types of electrophoresis methods within a chip-setup and used for the diagnosis of cancer and to detect pathogens in
found that, for different additives, different detection food and water based on the sensing of ligandreceptor
methods proved to be optimal [65]. In the food-analysis interactions [71].
market, devices produced with the so-called nanoelectro- The silicon surface of nanocantilevers can be modified to
mechanical systems (NEMS) technology are already in use attach antibodies, resulting in a change of the resonant
and these systems contain moving parts ranging from frequency depending on the attached mass. Gfeller et al.
nano- to milli-meter scale, which might serve as developing were able to detect Escherichia coli, which is an indicator of
tools in food preservation. They can control the storage fecal pollution of water and food products, with the help of a
environment and act as active sell by devices. A digital cantilever coated with agarose [72] (Figure 6).
transform spectrometer (DTS) produced by Polychromix
(Wilmington, MA, USA) uses microelectromechanical sys- Outstanding issues
tems technology to detect trans-fat content in foods [66]. Risks and regulations
NEMS could be used in food quality-control devices It is important to note that nanomaterials, owing to their
because they consist of advanced transducers for specific increased contact surface area, might have toxic effects in
detection of chemical and biochemical signals. The use of the body that are not apparent in the bulk materials [73].
so-called micro- and nano-technologies (MNTs) have sev- In addition, there might be potential and unforeseen
eral advantages for food technology, such as portable risks for their use in food-packaging materials. Although
instrumentation with quick response, low costs and smart nanomaterials from food packaging are not normally
communication through various frequency levels. In the ingested or inhaled by consumers, detailed research will
area of food safety and quality, MNTs are particularly need to determine their effects on the microbial flora
suitable because they are able to detect and monitor any present in the mouth and in the gut (Nanotechnology
adulteration in packaging and storage conditions [67]. and food, available at
Nanocantilevers are another innovative class of biosen- sources/bulletins/documents/IUF.SIB.Nanotechnolo-
sors. Their detection principle is based on their ability to gy.pdf). Currently, no regulations exist that specifically
detect biological-binding interactions, such as between control or limit the production of nanosized particles and
antigen and antibody, enzyme and substrate or cofactor this is mainly owing to a lack of knowledge about the risks.
and receptor and ligand, through physical and/or electro- Despite this lack of regulation and risk knowledge, a
mechanical signaling [68]. They consist of tiny pieces of handful of food and nutrition products that contain nanos-
silicon-based materials that have the capability of recog- cale additives are already being sold, such as iron in
nizing proteins and detecting pathogenic bacteria and nutritional drink mixes, micelles that carry vitamins,
viruses [69]. Nanocantilever devices have already had minerals and phytochemicals in oil and zinc oxide in break-
tremendous success in studies of molecular interactions fast cereals. Nanoclays have also found use in plastic beer
and in the detection of contaminant chemicals, toxins and bottles (Do nanoparticles in food pose a health risk?,
antibiotic residues in food products [70]. Pathogen detec- available at
tion is based on their ability to vibrate at various frequen- nanoparticles-in-food-pose-health-risk) [25].

Review Trends in Biotechnology Vol.27 No.2

including an antibacterial food-packaging material, a

nanocoating that protects tomatoes from humidity and
oxygen, a bread containing nanocapules of omega-3 fatty
acids and a juice with vitamin A encapsulated in starch.
The results obtained from 153 people showed that the
nanotechnology-derived packaging was perceived as being
more beneficial than the nanotechnology-engineered foods.
These results also supported the hypothesis that nano-
technology inside a food is perceived as less acceptable
than being on the outside (i.e. in the food packaging).

Nanotechnology is becoming increasingly important for
the food sector. Promising results and applications are
already being developed in the areas of food packaging
and food safety. The incorporation of nanomaterials into
food packaging is expected to improve the barrier proper-
ties of packaging materials and should thereby help to
reduce the use of valuable raw materials and the gener-
ation of waste. Edible nanolaminates could find appli-
cations in fresh fruits and vegetables, bakery products
and confectionery, where they might protect the food from
moisture, lipids, gases, off-flavors and odors.
Natural biopolymers of nanosize scale, such as polysac-
charides, can be used for the encapsulation of vitamins,
prebiotics and probiotics and for delivery systems of drugs
or nutraceuticals.
In the food sector, one of the most important problems
is the time-consuming and laborious process of food
quality-control analysis. Innovative devices and tech-
niques are being developed that can facilitate the prep-
aration of food samples and their precise and inexpensive
analysis. From this point of view, the development of
nanosensors to detect microorganisms and contaminants
Figure 6. Illustration of the function of a nanocantilever sensor that is based on is a particularly promising application of food nanotech-
mass increase due to bacterial growth. (a) E. coli cells are deposited on top of an
agarose-coated cantilever. The thin nutritive layer (200 nm thick) stays in
equilibrium with the humid environment. (b) The bacteria start to grow and However, there are social and ethical issues of using
assimilate water, protein, salts and carbohydrates from the nutritive layer. (c) To nanotechnology in the food sector that must be considered.
regain equilibrium with the humid environment, the nutritive layer absorbs water.
This compensation leads to additional mass load (Dm refers to change in mass
Currently, the potential risks of nanomaterials to human
load) onto the cantilever that can be sensed by the change in frequency levels (Df) health and to the environment are unknown [73]. The 2006
from the cantilever. Reproduced with permission from [72]. report of the Institute of Food Science and Technologists
mentions that size matters and recommends the use of
nanoparticles in the food sector only after safety has been
The US Food and Drug Administration require manu- proven following vigorous testing. Special attention should
facturers to demonstrate that the food ingredients and food also be given to consumer attitudes towards food nano-
products are not harmful to health, yet this regulation does technology. Taking lessons from the GM arguments across
not specifically cover nanoparticles, which could become European countries, it is crucial to discuss the benefits and
harmful only in nanosized applications. risks of this highly promising technology. Governments
should consider appropriate labeling and should also set
Public perception down regulations that will help to increase consumer
Public perception of nanotechnology is another important acceptability.
factor that will affect the realization of nanotechnology
approaches in the food industry, as seen in the example of References
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