Brainy food: Academia, industry
sink their teeth into edible nano

Maybe we won’t live to see the molecular assembler become a standard kitchen appliance, custom-building each meal. But nanotechnology research being done today could start to make a significant impact on our food supply within the next decade.

Consider these innovations:

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  • Food that can adjust its color, flavor or nutrient content to accommodate each diner’s taste or health condition.
  • Filters that can screen out or pass through certain molecules based on their shape rather than their size, making it possible to remove toxins or adjust flavors.
  • Packaging that can sense when its contents are spoiling, and alert the consumer.

The seeds of food-related nanotech are beginning to sprout in academia and industry.

The food science department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. N.J., announced recently that it has hired what it believes is the first ever professor of food nanotechnology.

Qingrong Huang, who has been pursuing postdoctoral work at Stanford in nanocomposite films, envisions two chief areas of research interest: tailored delivery of nutrients, and nanoscale sensors. He takes up his new post Sept. 1.

“The idea is bioengineering or biotechnology, rather than pure food science,” he said. “This is a totally new paradigm and there are a lot of challenges.” He hopes to take an interdisciplinary approach, working with microbiologists, chemists, chemical engineers, bioengineers and biochemists.

The school had more than 30 applicants for the position, said Jozef Kokini, department chair and director of Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Food Technology.

“In our opinion, this is one technology that will have profound implications for the food industry, even though they’re not very clear to a lot of people.”

He sees great promise in food-borne “nutraceuticals” that could use proteins to deliver drugs to targeted areas of the body, and in packaging that responds to changes in its contents.

On the industrial side, it’s only appropriate that the company that brought us Tang (the beverage of the astronauts) is also in the forefront of finding ways to apply nanotechnology to food production and packaging. Kraft Foods, the $34 billion giant that also owns the Oscar Mayer, Nabisco and Post brands, started the first, and possibly the only, nanotechnology laboratory among the big food companies back in 1999.

But Kraft isn’t doing heavy in-house development, or at least not yet. Instead, its “NanoteK” research consortium was established in January 2000 with 15 universities and national research labs doing basic research that may yield cutting-edge food technology.

Consortium participants include Harvard, the University of Nebraska, the University of Connecticut, Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories, the Universities of Seville and Malaga in Spain and Uppsala University in Sweden. Kraft funds research groups at each institution, at an undisclosed level.

“We’re doing this to keep a leadership position in food science,” said Manuel Marquez-Sanchez, research director of Kraft’s nanotechnology lab, whose background is in chemistry. “We want to know how to use this technology for food safety and quality.”

Kraft’s key focus is customization and personalization of food products, he said. “Potentially we could have products that recognize a person’s profile — his allergies or nutritional deficiencies — or packaging smart enough to realize that you need more calcium.”

The consortium is free of food scientists because Kraft has plenty of those. Instead, the company funds the work of physicists, engineers and molecular chemists.

Several of the groups are studying nanoparticles that encapsulate certain flavors, colors or nutrients and can be selectively zapped — by microwaves or some other method — to release their payload. Such nanocapsules were described in a recent paper in the journal Science that studied olive oil as the capsule material. Marquez-Sanchez was a co-author on the paper, with researchers from the Universities of Seville and Malaga, and he describes it as “one of the big feats of our consortium.” But its work will yield other major publications, he predicts.

Physicist David Weitz of Harvard is studying colloidosomes — micron-sized hollow spheres with selectively permeable membranes that allow controlled release of the shell’s contents. His group is using spheres made of silica — the same substance that thickens McDonald’s milkshakes. Weitz thinks they might be good candidates for commercial application. “Working like this with industrial people gives us a way to test the practicality of what we’re doing,” he said.

Gustavo Larsen, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Nebraska, is working on “smart filters” based on cellulose, but coated with an inorganic compound that can be imprinted with the shapes of certain molecules. “Someone at Kraft had the vision to realize that conventional food technology won’t make you competitive later on,” he said. “My sense is that they would like to see some kind of solid results three or four years from now.”

Greg Sotzing, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, is developing an “electronic tongue” that detects minute amounts of a huge range of chemicals, using tiny electrodes coated with a conductive polymer. “The food industry is often after a certain smell or taste with a minimal amount of a certain chemical,” Sotzing said. “This device can detect parts per trillion, which is tremendous for a sensor that costs about 50 cents to produce. There are instruments that cost $150,000 and do a worse job.”

Sotzing said the tongue technology could potentially be incorporated into products such as meat wrappings that would change color when they sense the meat starting to spoil.

He’s a huge fan of the NanoteK consortium, and it’s not just the funding. “Manuel has somehow gotten these people with many different areas of expertise, and the consortium lets us interact,” he said. “It’s nice to have a team like that, so it’s not just me on my own.”


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