Processes that result in nanostructures have been applied in the food industry for centuries. Examples of this include nano-emulsions in margarine and mayonnaise. These structures are generally considered to be safe, as they are digested in the stomach and intestines. But foods also contain nanomaterials that are not easily digested. Since the properties of nanomaterials differ from those of “normal substances”, RIVM aims to ascertain whether they pose a risk for human health.

Potential risks

Nanomaterials in foods can be expected to pose health risks in particular if they are not degraded in the gastrointestinal tract. Tiny particles are known to behave differently than larger particles of the same chemical substance. Such nanoparticles have a much larger surface area per unit of mass than larger particles and can, therefore, interact more readily with structures in the human body and cause adverse effects. They can also reach other locations in the body, as they pass through barriers such as the wall of the intestinal tract more easily.

SAS and titanium dioxide

Only a few nanomaterials that are not easily degraded are used in foods. Two such substances are found in all sorts of different foods, namely food additives E551 and E171. E551 consists of Synthetic Amorphous Silica (SAS), which is used as an anti-caking agent. E171 refers to titanium dioxide, a white pigment that contains a certain fraction of nanoparticles. SAS and titanium dioxide have both been used in foods for a long time. In collaboration with others, such as RIKILT and NVWA, RIVM is examining the potential health risks. At present, the possibility that the use of these materials has negative effects cannot be excluded.

Risk assessment of nanomaterials in food

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA published an opinion on the risk assessment of nanomaterials in food. This opinion is presently under revision. It indicates which information and aspects are important for the risk assessment of nanomaterials and facilitates a uniform and consistent approach to the risk assessment of nanomaterials in food throughout Europe. When reassessing food additives such as SAS and titanium dioxide, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA takes into account the presence of any nanoparticles in performing the risk assessment.

Labelling requirement

Starting in December 2014, a European regulation came into force on providing consumers with information on food. This regulation obliges producers for each product to clearly label, in the list of its ingredients, all ingredients present in the form of engineered nanomaterials by the descriptive term “(nano)”. This obligation does not require the reporting of any information on the risk of the nanomaterial in question but is intended to provide the consumer with freedom of choice. In practice, it turns out that few food products are actually labelled as containing “(nano)” ingredients.

Legislation on Novel Foods

Novel Foods are foods and ingredients that were not sold as foods within the EU before 15 May 1997. As of 1 January 2018, the new Novel Foods legislation came into force. This legislation also applies to foods that are produced by using new technologies such as nanomaterials. This legislation aims to provide new and innovative foods improved access to the European market. EFSA will monitor and check the safety of new foods on a European level. These will be introduced to the market only after they have been approved.

The number of applications of nanomaterials in foods and other products is expected to increase. Greater insight into the potential health risks of nanomaterials is a precondition for being able to benefit from the advantages of such materials.