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Markets: Nanotech food struggles to graduate from the lab

By Guy Montague-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Food industry

Nanotechnology has been a buzz word in the food industry for years but that has done little to turn ideas in a lab into commercially viable innovations.

There are a myriad of potential applications in the food sector ranging from emulsions and nano-encapsulations on the formulation side to nano-coatings for processing equipment on the factory floor.

But despite scientific interest and excitement, the size of the ‘nano food’ market is as small as the particles it deals with. Unsurprisingly therefore little market research data is available.

One estimate from the consultancy Cientifica put the global value of the nanofoods market at $410m in 2006 while research group iRAP reported that in 2008 the nano-enabled food and drinks packaging market was worth $4.13bn.

Surveying the commercial landscape, Kathy Groves from Leatherhead Food Research said packaging is currently the number one application area for nanotechnology in the food industry. Nanotechnology has delivered packaging products with improved barrier properties and intelligent features like time and temperature indicators.

Japan is leading the way in this market but Groves said cost is still holding back commercial development.

As for other food applications, academic work continues apace but at present picking the successful innovations of the future is an uncertain game.

Unilever is looking at the potential of nanoparticles in the field of emulsions. Salad dressing with a lower fat content and a cleaner label is an example of what this research could deliver.

Meanwhile, Groves said that nano-coatings on food processing machinery is an area to watch. Food Production Daily will be covering its potential to ease the cleaning burden at food plants in more detail in the coming days.

While Groves tipped nano-coatings for success, she warned that picking which research projects or even application areas will result in new and exciting products is not a straightforward affair.

For example, the analyst said nano-filters that remove peanut allergens or filter out free radicals had being picked out as promising area years ago but today there is very little activity to be seen.

Scientific barriers and problems can scupper research projects but in nanotechnology there are other important hurdles.

Groves said the recession has probably put a break on nano research. Because commercialisation is often some way off nanotech research projects can come under threat when budgets are squeezed.

Another more long-term barrier relates to consumer perception and safety, as public concern about new technology and regulatory caution holds up progress.

Here there is a gap between the US and Europe. Groves said there is more nano activity in the US food sector because there is less public and scientific concern. Squaring caution on safety with the desire to be at the forefront on nanotech R&D will be a challenge for Europe in the coming years.

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