Nanoparticle Additives in Food

It is no secret that processed foods are full of preservatives, emulsifiers, and artificial colors and flavors. These additives are included in food for a variety of reasons, including to slow or prevent spoilage, prevent oils and fats from going rancid, or to add synthetic vitamins and minerals to replace the natural ones lost during processing. These additives also improve taste, since these foods are processed so much, they would taste dull without them. However, these are only the additives listed, since many compounds do not have to be listed on the ingredients label because they are merely processing aids.

Food additives in the United States do not undergo much of the same testing as they would in other geographic areas, e.g., European Union (EU). Likewise, one of the most unregulated food additives are nanoparticles, which are rapidly increasing in popularity.

Recent Concerns

A recent test investigated the popularity of these nanoparticles.                                                                                                                

Tests by the Adolphe Merkle Institute of the University of Fribourg and the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office in Switzerland found nanosized titanium dioxide, silicon oxide and talc in 27% of the food products tested [1].

These nanoparticles are added to foods to improve their texture, appearance, and flavor. For example, silicon dioxide is added to many spices and salt as an anticaking agent, meaning it helps the spices flow easier without caking. Titanium dioxide, which is called E171 in the EU, is a whitening agent that is added to a wide range of products, including chocolate, gum, milk powders, and mayonnaise. E171 is not a new compound, and for the longest time, people believed it was an inert compound; however, more modern research is beginning to change that opinion [2].

According to The Guardian, “ ... the tiny metal additive has also been shown to accumulate in liver, spleen, kidney and lung tissues in rats when ingested and to damage the liver and heart muscle,” about E171 [2]. These consequences are not specific to E171 either.

“This suite of ingredients, engineered to almost atomic scale, may have unintended effects [3] on cells and organs, particularly the digestive tract [4]. There are also indications that nanoparticles may get into the bloodstream [5] and accumulate [6] elsewhere in the body. They have been linked to inflammation [7], liver and kidney damage [8] and even heart and brain damage [9].”

Researcher Christine Ogilvie Hendren, executive director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology at Duke University, told The Guardian that she washes “all my foods like crazy,” to remove as many of these nanoparticles as possible [2].

Christine K. Payne, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke University, added, “There might be concerns for toddlers when you have a small body mass that you’re eating a lot of these … products” [2].

Retaliation Against E171

Occasionally, a government organization seems to be doing the right thing concerning food regulation.

Because France’s country health and safety agency could not prove that nanosized titanium dioxide was safe (E171), they banned the substance effective 2020, according to a Reuters report [11].

Professor Payne researches nanomaterials and focuses on the effects of inhaling them. Payne stated her researcher uncovered “lots of unexpected molecular and genetic effects” even at concentration levels 100 times below those deemed safe by traditional toxicology tests [2].

Payne further explained, “What all labs [doing such research] are seeing now is that there are effects beyond toxicity, so you can work at non-toxic concentrations but still see, for example, an oxidative stress response which can lead to inflammation. Do these more subtle effects matter, especially over long-term exposure? [2]. No one knows.

“It’s a new technology; we still only know 10% about it,” says Sonia Trigueros, a fellow at the University of Oxford, UK, and former co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Nanotechnology [2].

Damaging Gut Health

David Julian McClements, a Distinguished Professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, published a 2017 review where he investigated the effects of nanoparticles on the human gastrointestinal tract and the toxicity potential of food-grade nanoparticles. McClements stated that some of these nanoparticles could indeed “have harmful effects and that future studies are required” [12].

McClements also explained although many of these particles may not be included in the food itself, many of them are used in food packaging and may migrate into food, and these migrating nanoparticles may also pose health hazards. [12] For example, nanosized silver is commonly used as a microbial agent in food packaging, and when ingested, the nanosized silver may kill beneficial gut bacteria and alter the gut microbiome.

Researchers at The University of Sydney in Australia investigated the effects of E171 on naturally occurring gut bacteria. They found that nanoparticle-sized titanium dioxide administered in drinking water impacted gut bacteria in a way that could trigger inflammatory bowel diseases and colorectal cancer [13] [14].

Associate professor Wojciech Chrzanowski, a nanotoxicology expert with the University of Sydney's School of Pharmacy and Sydney Nano Institute, told Science Daily, “There is increasing evidence that continuous exposure to nanoparticles has an impact on gut microbiota composition, and since gut microbiota is a gate keeper of our health, any changes to its function have an influence on overall health. This study presents pivotal evidence that consumption of food containing food additive E171 (titanium dioxide) affects gut microbiota as well as inflammation in the gut, which could lead to diseases such as inflammatory bowel diseases and colorectal cancer” [14].

Further studies have also found that these nanoparticles can interfere with the gut’s biological functions.

For example, an in vitro study published in 2019 found that “The food additive E171 and titanium dioxide nanoparticles indirectly alter the homeostasis of human intestinal epithelial cells” [15]. They concluded that their data shows that E171 “moderately but significantly dysregulates several features that contribute to the protective function of the intestine” [15].

Moreover, according to a 2018 study, nanoparticles can bind to beneficial bacteria, which can alter the bacteria’s lifecycle and behavior inside the body [16] [17].

Safety Testing

Nanotechnology is at the forefront of technological development, with many universities investing considerably into their nanotechnology infrastructure and academic programs. However, there is an imbalance between the push to develop as much of this technology as possible to this technology being investigated to make sure it is safe.

A 2018 paper noted the name withholding: “There is an imbalance between the increase in research to identify new nanoparticle applications and their safety, and this has triggered pressure on scientists to identify the possible effects of nanoparticles on human health. There are numerous studies on the use of nanotechnology in food and the effect of nanoparticles on human health, but there is a vacuum in the literature in terms of the combined analysis of such studies” [18].

The paper came to an ambiguous point: “After years of research, we have only come to the conclusion that materials at nanoscale show drastically different properties and unexpected behavior. This unexpected behavior is what leads to our concerns about its toxicity” [18].

The paper further explained that the physical composition of nanoparticles gives them a vast surface area for their size, which allows them to behave strangely. The article explained, “[N]anoparticles are more likely to react with various biological entities such as lipids and proteins or cells as a whole. Nanoparticles may cross the cell membrane entering various organs and activate inflammatory or other immune responses” [18].

Physical interactions between a nanoparticle and a biological membrane generally trigger “disruption of membranes and its activity, protein folding, aggregation and various transport processes,” while chemical interactions primarily result in “reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation and oxidative damage … There is an urgent need for information to better understand the nanoparticle-biological interactions and processes” [18].

There even seems to be a cumulative, synergetic effect with combinations of food additives and other ingredients, as noted by a 2015 study led by Denmark’s National Food Institute [19]. The 2015 survey found “that when two or more chemicals appear together, they often have an additive effect. This means that cocktail effects can be predicted based on information from single chemicals, but also that small amounts of chemicals when present together can have significant negative effects” [19]. Though this study did not include nanoparticles, you can ratiocinate that nanoparticles would have a similar effect since they are very unpredictable compared to their additive counterparts.

FDA Regulation

Though the EU requires nano-ingredients to be indicated on food packaging, and France has banned E171, starting in 2020, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate nano-ingredients in food.

Many people are not aware that many food additives are not approved before they are brought to market and may not have to be approved at all if they fall under the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) classification [20] [21] [22]. However, getting an item on the GRAS list is rather easy for large corporations because all they have to do is hire an industry insider to evaluate the compound with no FDA involvement; no independent third-party evaluation is required [23]. Consequentially, we have many new GRAS chemicals in the American food supply.

Avoid Processed Foods

Though this may seem frank, avoiding processed foods is by far the best way to prevent these particles from entering your body. Nowadays, cooking fresh and organic ingredients in your home is the best way to guarantee you know precisely what you are eating.

If you would like to read more about the effects of processed foods, check out the article titled “Chronic Effects of Processed Foods” and “The Adverse Effects of Glyphosate.”

If you have questions about any of our products, check out Healthmasters’ Basic Healthy Lifestyle Kit and please feel free to call our office at 800.726.1834.