Much of the discussion around how technology can assist and transform the food industry has focused in on automation or big data, how we can take digitalisation and next-generation robotics and use them to evolve the manufacturing process to new heights of efficiency. Perhaps less attention has been paid to how developing technologies could affect the end-consumer experience but the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) has offered a new vision of future nutrition. The IFST believes that nanotechnology could provide manufacturers the ability to significantly boost the nutritional content of products without sacrificing aesthetic.

According to the Institute’s statement, “Adding nutraceuticals such as vitamins, calcium, iron etc. to foods to benefit consumers has been used for many years. Using nanotechnology to create nano-encapsulated nutrients such as vitamins, or nano-sized calcium or iron allows them to be added to drinks [and food] with no effects on clarity or visual appeal. Additionally, and importantly, they are absorbed faster in the body when in the nano state. Examples of the use of nanotechnology, in this area, includes many variants of nano-calcium, nano-magnesium and nano-iron.”

Nanoencapsulation offers nutritional efficiency without losing visual clarity

Nanotechnology has thus far received attention principally for its potential medical uses, with the ability to shrink technology to such small sizes offering the potential to treat patients in radically new ways. However, one of the techniques developing within this field could also be of great use to the food industry. Nanoencapsulation involves packing nanoparticles, such as those of desired nutrients, into a secondary shell to form nanocapsules. Within healthcare, the technique offers the capability for targeted delivery of medicines. In the food industry, it could allow foods to be packed with nanoparticles that will far more efficiently deliver nutrients to cells.

As Dr. Lisa Zychowski a freelance scientist for Kolabtree, explains: “Nanoencapsulation technology is mainly used in the pharmaceutical industry but recently this technique has also been employed in food systems. Nanoencapsulation for vitamins, bioactives and even flavours is possible in food matrices and can offer several advantages over traditional encapsulation techniques, such as increased bioavailability and shelf life.

“For example, the small droplets required for nanoencapsulation (≥100 nm) do not scatter light like larger encapsulated material do, so the nanoencapsulated solutions are optically clear. This clear emulsion enables the delivery of lipophilic flavours and bioactive compounds in otherwise colour sensitive systems such as milk.”

The ability to boost the functionality of food, a trait particularly in demand by consumers lately as it relates to health, without sacrificing visual appeal could be of tremendous significance to the future direction of the industry. While nanotechnology as a whole is certainly still in the nascent stages of development, the opportunities it offers the food industry are undeniable. By encapsulating nutrients, manufacturers can ensure to not only deliver those nutrients more effectively but, in tandem, offer their consumers a far more nutritionally robust product than previously possible.

Vitamin market growth and encapsulation’s bioavailability increase

The Independent reported in January that vitamin D sales have now risen to make it the most popular single food supplement in Britain, with Mintel market research showing that 33% of supplement buyers purchase vitamin D while 27% opt for vitamin C. The same research found that British consumers’ spending on vitamins had risen from £417m in 2013 to £442m in 2018, with predicted sales of £477m by 2023. Meanwhile, vitamin drink VITHIT launched in Australia in November with predicted sales of $4m in its first 18 months, following a projected 38% growth for 2018 in its home market of the UK and sales in Belgium on track to reach €1.8m in its first 18 months.

With vitamins seeing such heightened commercial desire, likely due in part to increased consumer interest in wellness, the ability to elevate vitamin offerings will be in high demand. Nanoencapsulation offers not only the ability to target delivery of nutrients but to ensure their bioactivity upon delivery, a factor that is particularly important with sensitive elements such as vitamins. As likely the paramount nutritional supplement worldwide for the foreseeable future, the vitamin market is ripe for innovation that will not only give consumers a far more efficient product but help brands stand out among otherwise relatively similar offerings.

Dr. Zychowski told us: “Vitamins are bioactive compounds found in foods, which are necessary for optimal human health. However, vitamins are sensitive to degradation from conditions such as heat, light, oxygen and moisture, so consuming sufficient quantities can prove difficult. Encapsulating technology can prevent the deterioration of vitamins and can possibly even be used for targeted delivery of the compounds into the human intestinal system.

“The process of encapsulation involves coating or trapping a vitamin in another compound. A protective barrier is then created, which protects the bioactive. By protecting the vitamin before incorporating it into the food system, vitamin degradation can often be decreased.

“Encapsulating vitamins in foods can also offer other advantages, such as masking the bitter flavour often experienced with vitamin consumption. The use of nanoencapsulation can also increase the bioavailability of the vitamin, so that less of the compound is required for the desired effect.”

Safety first: nanomaterials could prove harmful to human host

This is not to say that nanoencapsulation and broader nanotechnologies should simply be heralded as the unquestioned answer to next-generation nutrition. While the potential benefits of nanotechnology in this sphere could be huge, there is also the risk that nanomaterials could prove harmful to the host. For example, certain nanoparticles and materials have been found to have negative effects on tissues; one experiment showed single-walled carbon nanotubes inhibiting human embryo kidney cell growth and impacting cell growth and turnover.

While the technology is still too young to currently be conclusive about a negative impact on health, it will be vital that consumers are assured of safety before widespread usage.

As the IFST note in its statement, “in the general use of nanoparticles, it is important to assess how products of nanotechnology and their manufacture may eventually lead to the release of particulate nanomaterials into the environment, and to estimate the subsequent levels of exposure to these materials.

“The extent to which these materials can enter to the human body, the sites of penetration and possible accumulation of these materials will ultimately determine the possible risks of exposure, particularly for nanomaterials that cannot be metabolized within our bodies.”

Given the interest in nanotechnology, from military to pharmaceutical applications, it is likely that money will continue to flood into the sector in the coming years. There will thus be even greater attention on the results of development and whether it can live up to its potential. Regulators will have to be proactive in ensuring that safety assurances keep pace with industry interest and manufacturers must be sure that consumer choice, by applying full transparency to the process and inclusion of these technologies, is properly informed.