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Building Safer Foods

June 02, 2015

Food image

Want more nutrients with those fries? How about a biosensing burger that detects pathogens and contaminants or maybe a new-flavored smoothie blended entirely from manmade materials?

While these may seem like the creations of a mad scientist, nano-engineered food is coming our way sooner than you think, say researchers who are working to create customized foods that will be tailored to our own tastes and biophysical needs and desires, thanks to engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) that are no larger than billionths of a meter in size. 1 To give you some idea of just how small that is, the width of a human hair is 80,000 times larger.

Small as they are, ENMs are causing quite a big stir around the world. They are at the very heart of a dynamic new industry that is introducing a vast array of nano-engineered products from foods and pharmaceuticals to manufactured goods. Holding the promise to revolutionize every facet of life, ENMs are also generating an outsized share of criticism as potential hazards to human and environmental health. 2

On the food front, ENMs have the potential to transform how and what we eat through the development of longer-lasting, better tasting, and safer, healthier foods. In fact, some of their supporters are quick to point out that their natural equivalents have been part of our ecosystem since the Big Bang. The common dairy cow, for example, is considered the ideal nanomaterial producer for its casein, whey proteins, and fat globules. These natural nanomaterials are key ingredients used in everything from butter and whipped cream to ice cream, milk, and a whole lot of other foods. But, the leap from natural to manmade nanomaterials in food and elsewhere in the environment is a bridge too far for many skeptics. 3

ENMs have chemical and physical properties that are radically different from substances with the same composition but of a larger size – the very reason scientists are interested in nanotechnology in the first place. More pressing is what might happen once nanoparticles are introduced into our food chain without fully understanding their repercussions on our heath, environment, or the ecosystem. 4

That is where global environmental health and life science leader PerkinElmer is making a huge difference in the study of ENMs and their impact on food and the environment. As part of a multi-institutional research study of nanoparticles in the environment, researchers at the University of Texas and University of California rely on PerkinElmer atomic spectroscopy instrumentation to carry out much of the trace element measurements in soil and plant samples that are essential to their research. The company’s industry-leading Fourier Transform-Infrared (FTIR) spectrometers are also providing environmental scientists with rapid component analysis of plants that may have been damaged by nanomaterials. 5

At Missouri University of Science & Technology, meanwhile, PerkinElmer is collaborating with nanoscientists using the company’s industry leading NexION® Single Particle ICP-MS and groundbreaking Syngistix™ Nano Application Module. In combination with the NexION ICP-MS, Syngistix software is the world’s first single particle ICP-MS-dedicated analysis software that determines everything from particle composition and concentration to size and distribution in a single run in less than one minute. 6

While there is still much to learn about nanomaterials in food and what positive and negative impacts they may have on human health and the environment, it is reassuring to know that PerkinElmer is on the front lines of that research. Its major new technologies are helping to significantly improve the research quality and time needed to detect, quantitate, and characterize nanoparticles. Now, about those fries?

Learn more about nanotechnology and ENMs.


  1. Nanotechnology in agri-food production: an overview, Nanotechnol Sci Appl.; see also: Welcome to the world of nano foods, The Guardian; see also: What you need to know about nano-food, The Guardian.
  2. Nanotechnology in agri-food production: an overview, E–The Environmental Magazine; see also: You're Eating Tiny Particles Of Metal And The FDA Doesn't Care, Blisstree.
  3. Is Big Dairy Putting Microscopic Pieces of Metal in Your Food?, Mother Jones.
  4. Engineered nanomaterials: exposures, hazards, and risk prevention, Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology.
  5. Nanomaterials in Food, PerkinElmer.
  6. PerkinElmer and Missouri S&T Collaborate on Nanoparticle Study, PerkinElmer.

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