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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 17:38 GMT
Future foods: friend or foe?
By Paul Moss
BBC News

The labs at Wageningen University are filled with food

It looks, at first sight, like any normal laboratory; scientists in white coats, playing with test tubes and hi-tech machines.

But at Wageningen University, in central Holland, the equipment on-hand also includes a kitchen blender, a bottle of oil and a supply of eggs.

These researchers are busy designing new kinds of food using nanotechnology, a branch of science that looks at manipulation at the molecular scale.

And the possibilities are straight out of science fiction.

Unusual practise

Maartje Steegmans is working on mayonnaise, but making it from an unusual kind of droplet.

"What we have is oil on the outside, but just water on the inside of each droplet," she explains, "so you taste a normal mayonnaise, but what you eat has much less fat, so it's better for you."

Health is very much on the mind of her colleague Franz Kampers, the nanoresearch coordinator at Wageningen.

junk food
Nanotechnology could make children eat more healthily

He promises to promote better eating by designing innovative products, such as milk that uses nanoparticles to make it taste just like cola.

"By adding these sensations, children will start drinking it who don't like normal milk," he promises.

Of potential greater importance is how nanotechnology can boost the nutritional value of normal food ingredients.

"People do not eat sufficient fruit and vegetables, so by enriching products with these nutrients, we believe it is possible to give them the same health effects," Dr Kampers claims.

Potential danger

But if the penetrative power of nanoparticles is what excites the team at Wageningen, it arouses caution, and sometimes outright anxiety, among scientists elsewhere.

Professor Mark Welland, of Cambridge University, holds up a photograph that reveals, he says, the potential damage that nanoparticles might cause.

Carbon nanotubes are a basic building block of nanotechnology

It shows a human cell containing a nano-sized chunk of carbon. What is extraordinary is that the carbon has penetrated right into the nucleus, where genetic material is stored.

Professor Welland does not claim to know what this will do, but he sees the potential dangers.

It could interfere with the DNA, he warns, or it could provoke an immune reaction.

He is not trying to stop nanoscience; on the contrary, he is a firm believer in its potential benefits, in food, and in plenty of other areas too.

But Professor Welland warns it must be properly regulated: "The reason people are using these particles, is because they have special properties, they behave in a special way. They should be treated as a new material."

Echoes of GM?

And this is where the controversy comes in. Present regulations state that any new food must undergo safety checks.

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), nano-foods would fall under this category. But that reassurance is dismissed by the very man the FSA hired to look into the safety of nano-food technology.

Dr Qasim Chaudhry, of the Central Science Laboratory, believes there is a gap in the rules.

He says: "They do not differentiate between nano-foods and conventional forms. If a food is already approved, companies will not feel obliged to test a nanoform of that food. They could put nano-foods on our shelves without fully testing them."

Nano-foods are already on sale in the US and Australia. But when the BBC contacted several of the big-name food companies in the UK, none of them would reveal whether or not they planned to introduce nanoproducts here.

They would not be interviewed about the subject either, a sign, some commentators say, that they are worried about a new food scare, rivalling the one around GM foods.

Imminent release

But the researchers at Wageningen are more forthcoming. They believe there will be plenty of nano-food on the market here within the next few years.

Competition for the best chocolate mousse is on

And a good thing too, according to Karin Schroen, another scientist working there, who says cooking is one of her hobbies.

She went to great lengths to explain how much easier it would be to make chocolate mousse with nano-chocolate.

No need to add anything, she says, just whip up the chocolate, and it comes out perfect.

"I'm in favour of preparing really nice dishes," she says, "but I can see the added value of using nanotechnology. It's a new road to go down, and you should try it."

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