Nanotechnologies in the food sector

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Recent developments, risks and rulesPackaging of the future will not only be a container of food which protects it from the outside, but it will be a more complex system which interacts with the product contained in it. Therefore, in the research and development sector of food packaging, competition will become stronger and the innovation ability will be essential; in this field, nanotechnologies are becoming one of the most important methods to produce both food and packaging of a better quality. But what are nanotechnologies? By this word we mean the study, production and manipulation of substances on a nano-metric scale between 1 and 100 nanometers where 1 nanometer is 1 milliard of a meter. The interest in nanotechnologies is focused on the fact that substances in such a reduced scale have different properties and functions in respect to the “conventional” scale and in some cases these new technologies, if correctly managed, can have an essential role in improving the development of products and processes for the benefit of human health. Some applications can even be positive for developing counties, in particular for the increase of the productivity of the agricultural sector and for the improvement of food and water safety. Nanotechnologies are the basis of many applications already launched on the market, such as silver nano-particles used as antimicrobial; instead other applications are still to be developed, such as for example zinc oxide for the sterilization of surfaces with activated light and starch, for which it is necessary to reduce the particle dimensions to nano-metric dimensions in order to increase the efficacy of an adhesive which is already available on the market. In a recent publication (M. Cushen, Trends, 2012) the main applications and prospects of nano-technologies in the food and packaging sector, were collected. As regards food, the most advanced sectors for the application of nano-technologies are related to the following sectors:

•  the use of organic substances which are naturally present in food, such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats which can vary in dimensions and pass from big polymers to much smaller molecules also of nano-metric dimensions;

• the preparation of nano-emulsions which are an example of how nano-technologies can be applied and give great advantages to an already consolidated process in the food industry;

• the use of nutriceutical compounds, such as for example bio-active proteins, used to give benefits to the health of consumers, and so something more compared with the nutrition offered by the food itself;

• the development of the nano-encapsulation of food, which allows to immobilize some nutritious elements in various matrixes and to make them more resistant to protease and to the other denaturation compounds, making them more stable to the pH and temperature variations;

• the use of color influences induced by the presence of nano-metric components, surely present but still not studied very much.