What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology describes a range of technologies used to manipulate materials that are generally less than 100 nanometres (nm) in size in one dimension. One nm is one billionth of a metre.
Are nanotechnologies being used in foods?
There is little evidence to suggest nanotechnologies are being used in the food industry on a wide scale, although a lot of research is being undertaken on potential applications. Future applications of nanotechnologies could include nanostructured food products, nanoscale or nano-encapsulated food additives, or food packaging with improved properties. There are, however, certain foods including food additives that naturally contain nanoscale particles.
Are nanoscale materials new?
Nanoscale materials are not new. Food is naturally composed of nanoscale sugars, amino acids, peptides and proteins, many of which form organised, functional nanostructures.
For example, proteins are in the nanoscale size range and milk is an emulsion of nanoscale fat droplets. Humans have consumed these particles in foods throughout evolution without evidence of adverse health effects related to the nanoscale size of the materials.
Humans are also exposed to ultrafine and nanoscale particles such as smoke, dust, ash, and fine clays through the air, food and water. Scientists estimate that we may inhale millions of nanoscale particles in every breath.
Some materials when produced in the nano scale do have different properties. Therefore, in responding to nanotechnologies, the focus of FSANZ’s work is not on the size of the material, but on materials that are likely to act in a different way biologically or chemically if present in the final food.
Do current regulations apply to foods produced using nanotechnologies?
All food manufacturers and suppliers are required by law to ensure food sold in Australia is safe and suitable. This requirement is contained in food legislation in the states and territories. Food must also meet all the requirements in the Food Standards Code.
Any new food manufactured using nanotechnologies that may present safety concerns will have to undergo a comprehensive scientific safety assessment before it can be legally supplied in Australia or New Zealand. This requirement is set out in FSANZ’s Application Handbook which states that in cases where particle size is important to achieving the technological function, or may relate to a difference in toxicity, information must be provided on particle size, size distribution, and morphology, as well as any size-dependent properties.
What has FSANZ been doing about the potential use of nanotechnologies in food?
FSANZ has adopted a range of strategies to manage any potential risks associated with nanotechnologies in foods, with the aim of ensuring public health and safety is protected. The Application Handbook was amended in 2008 to ensure any application to approve the use of nanotechnology in food provides appropriate information for FSANZ to conduct a thorough risk assessment. These changes were promoted to industry.
To date FSANZ has not received an application to amend the Food Standards Code in relation to a new or novel nanotechnology.
FSANZ has also been working with other Australian regulatory agencies since 2007 to ensure the safety and suitability of any food products manufactured using nanotechnology can be determined. Additionally, FSANZ recently engaged a leading toxicologist to undertake a review of nanotechnology and its applications.
Read the reports on the use of nanotechnology in food additives and packaging.
In addition to regulatory work, FSANZ has reviewed available information about the ways nanoscale materials are absorbed, transported and excreted from the body to underpin any future work that may require a risk assessment.
FSANZ also continues to monitor local and international research and commercialisation of manufactured nanomaterials as part of an intergovernmental task force on nanotechnology.
What are other international agencies doing?
On 6 May 2021 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an updated safety assessment of titanium dioxide. EFSA's expert Panel of Food Additives and Flavourings concluded that although the evidence for general toxic effects was not conclusive, titanium dioxide can no longer be considered safe as a food additive.
The European Commission and Member States are yet to announce what actions will be taken on current permissions in the European Union as a result of EFSA's opinion.
FSANZ, in consultation with our independent scientific advisory groups, is in the process of reviewing the EFSA safety assessment and existing evidence on the safety of titanium dioxide as a food additive. This review will consider what action may be required to protect the health and safety of Australian and New Zealand consumers through food standards.
We will release further advice when the outcomes of our review are finalised.
FSANZ has set up a Scientific Nanotechnology Advisory Group (SNAG) comprising experts in the fields of nanosafety, pharmacology, nano-food technology, toxicology and nanometrology. The SNAG will advise on the development of guidance for a range of stakeholders, future uses of nanotechnology in food and food packaging and national/international legislation and policy.
FSANZ's response to the Sydney Morning Herald's article on nanotechnology.
Regulation of Nanotechnologies in Food in Australia and New Zealand (PDF 256kb)
Find out more about nanotechnology on the Department of Industry website.