Nanotechnology and nanomaterials in food

Nanotechnology and nanomaterials in food

Presented at ‘Health and Well-Being Days: Innovation and Research’

Federico Benetti

Interest in nanotechnology and the use of nanomaterials is growing rapidly due to their particular physico-chemical properties. Reduction of materials to the nanoscale confers on them high reactivity so they can be used as catalysts, improved optical and magnetic properties for theranostic purposes, mechanical properties for improved implants and prosthesis, and biological activity so they can act as biocides. In particular, nanomaterials and nanotechnology are applied in the automotive, appliance, coating,
health and fitness, and electronic and computer industries, in the manufacture of home and garden products and goods for children, and the food and beverage sectors [1] (Fig. 1).

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In the food sector, nanomaterials and nanotechnology are mainly used for cooking appliance manufacture, food storage and food supplements. When applied to food packaging, nanomaterials are usually used for improving the storage and shelf-life of products. Nanomaterial and nanotechnology applications are summarized in Tables 1 and 2.

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Estimation of the effects of nanomaterial use in the various sectors only considers the intentional application of nanomaterials for generating innovative products. However, nanomaterials and nanotechnology can also be used inadvertently or accidentally (Fig. 2), which has led to further research on their use in consumer products and unknown impacts on consumers. Nanotechnology refers to the design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems having dimensions in the nanoscale, while nanomaterials are natural, accidental or engineered materials with one or more dimensions in the nanoscale. Some examples of nanomaterial definitions are given in Table 3. These definitions are generic and applicable to all sectors and products.

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The unusual properties of nanomaterials are due to their small dimensions, which are responsible for the high surface area-to-volume ratio, number of particles per mass and so number of surface atoms. In addition to dimensions and surface area, the properties of nanomaterials also depend on chemical composition, shape, solubility, aggregation/agglomeration, morphology, surface energy and charge, surface coating, and crystallinity. Nanomaterials can assume different shapes depending on their basic forms, such as spheres and rods. Their chemical composition affects stability (i.e. agglomeration and aggregation) and dissolution, while coating and surface charge affect nanomaterial behaviour in real matrices such as foods. To properly evaluate their behaviour in complex systems, all the above physico-chemical properties must be considered. Depending on their chemical composition, nanomaterials can be divided into (i) organic nanomaterials such as micelles, and (ii) inorganic nanomaterials composed of metal(loids) such as silver and silica. Organic nanomaterials are mainly used for nanomedicine and nutraceutical applications to improve active molecule targeting. They can be formed by the active molecule or biocompatible elements transporting active molecules. Inorganic nanomaterials represent the active/functional element, and can introduce non-physiological elements such as silver into biological systems.

The first step to ensure the safe use of nanotechnology and nanomaterials in a regulatory context is the identification of the object as a ‘nanomaterial’. To this aim, the European Commission defined nanomaterial from a regulatory point of view as follows: “’Nanomaterial’ means a natural, incidental, or manufactured material containing particles in an unbound or an agglomerate state, where 50% or more of the particles size distribution is in the size range 1 nm–100 nm. In specific cases and where warranted by concerns for the environment, health, or safety the number size distribution threshold of 50% may be replaced by a threshold between 1% and 50%”. Therefore, it is essential to classify constitutive elements of food as nanomaterials using validated technical approaches and standard operating procedures able to comply with recently approved regulations on labelling (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 [2, 3]) and novel foods (Regulation (EU) 2283/2015) [4]. Once the presence of nanomaterials is verified, specific safety evaluation of the commercial products is necessary. The European Commission has made great efforts to promote the development of standardized and validated methods, procedures and tests for the regulatory testing of nanomaterials and nanomaterial-containing products, risk assessment and risk management. By participating in European projects such as NANoREG and NanoValid, our laboratory is actively involved in the development of methods and validated procedures for the physico-chemical characterization and safety of nanomaterials. Some procedures have been recently published on the NanoValid website (


1. Woodrow Wilson Center (2013) Project on emerging nanotechnologies inventory: consumer products inventory. Available from:

2.  The European Commission (2013) Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) No 1363/2013 of 12 December 2013 amending Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers as regards the definition of ‘engineered nanomaterials’ (Text with EEA relevance). Official Journal of the European Union L 343/26

3. Micheletti C, Venturini M (2015) Normativa e sicurezza. Criticità nell’applicazione ai nanomateriali. L’Integratore Nutrizionale 18(3) 48–50

4. Micheletti C, Benetti F (2016) Uso dei nanomateriali in nutraceutica. Cosa cambia con le modifiche del quadro normativo dopo il nuovo Regolamento “Novel Foods”. L’Integratore Nutrizionale 19(1) 44–47

Nutrafoods 3 – 2016

by Federico Benetti