The preservation of edibles for maintenance of their shelf-life is of paramount importance to ensure food safety and security, and is attracting more attention during the days of COVID-19, as quality of food has become one among the options to remain fit these days. Thanks to the advancements in technology and the study conducted so far which has brought to us the options to accept the introduction and implement safe packaging options. One among all is the application of Nanotechnology in food packaging.
Nanotechnology is an emerging area of research as its application is growing day by day in various sectors including food and agriculture due to their wide physical, chemical, and biological properties which are functionalised with several biomolecules to enhance the properties of packing and storage materials. The applications of nanotechnology at the global level are estimated to be around $3 trillion.
Its application over the food packaging in coming years can leave an indelible effect on its consumers, who won’t have to second guess the quality they consume.
There is an anticipation that once nanotechnology becomes dominant in the food packaging sector it can improve the production and processing techniques, leaving a fresh trail on the quality of the food by reducing the fat and the salt content from it.
Nanotechnological interventions to food packaging chiefly explore three possibilities i.e. direct incorporation into food products, incorporation in food packaging material, and application in food processing.
Nanoparticle based materials offer greater advantage over conventional and non-biodegradable packing materials by enhancing the functional properties of foods such as bio- availability, taste, texture, flavour, safety, prevent microbial contamination and enhance the shelf-life. Additionally, nanomaterials in the form of sensors can be employed to maintain the temperature, detection of pathogens, pesticides, toxins and other chemicals in packed foods.
Studies have revealed that in food packaging where silver nanoparticles are applied as antimicrobial agents, they can reduce the growth of bacteria and keep food safer, fresher and tastier for longer duration. In addition, gold nanoparticles have also gained importance in the food industry due to their antimicrobial properties, mechanical, gas barrier and enhanced shelf-life characteristics.
There are several commercial nano based food packaging materials available in the market which are being used in the food processing industry. However, till now no direct applications of nanoparticles in human food are being tested.
At present, the all known application of nanotechnology in food and food packaging is more prevalent in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, China and Israel.
Some of the major players operating in global nanotechnology food packaging market are: Valentis Nanotech, DuPont USA, Nanocor (AMCOL International), Inmat, Bayer AG, Ecosysthetix, Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Company, Inc., Honeywell International Inc., AdvanSix and Dong Yang Chemical Co.
For instance, Honeywell International has developed a mixture of nylon 6-nanoclay composite marketed as Aegis OXCE with additional oxygen scavenger property. It is ideal for packaging of beer and flavoured alcoholic beverages.
On the other hand, in collaboration with Nanocor, Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Company Inc. USA has developed nylon nanocomposites with the commercial name Imperm that is applied in a barrier layer for multi-layer PET bottles, and is further explored for liquors like beer and small carbonated soft-drink beverages. Nanocor also offers an ample range of polymer nanocomposites for purchase in pellet form and packaging products developed with the montmorillonite minerals such as Durethan KU2-2601 has been used as food packaging material via improving several properties of packaging.
Yet to emerge in India
With many advancements taking place globally, the trend suggests that India should not be stonewalling the implementation of nanotechnology now. There’s enough potential of nanotechnology in food packaging in India, as India is termed as a country of innovation. A testimony of this can be drawn from the recent research conducted by a team of scientists at the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Andhra Pradesh who have demonstrated how the concept of nanotechnology can be used to develop food packaging materials that enhance the shelf-life, maintain quality, retain flavour and colour of packed food materials.
Dr Tingirikari Jagan Mohan Rao, Assistant Professor, Department of Biotechnology, NIT, Andhra Pradesh, said, “The research emphasises the role of nanoparticles to provide mechanical stability to packing material and shows how the nano-sensors can be developed to detect pathogens, contamination, pesticides, and allergens and enhances the antimicrobial properties of packing material to prevent food spoilage and contamination. In addition to this, the role of inorganic nanoparticles in food preservation is to increase shelf-life and release of antioxidants protecting the food from harmful ultraviolet radiations. The research also discusses the food safety aspects related to nanomaterials and follows eco–friendly practices such as proper labeling on the food items, following safety regulation for disposal, and performing cytotoxic studies on humans and animals.”
While nanotechnology can evolve as an alternate food processing and storage strategy to overcome the existing technologies and find a possible solution to combat the menace of food pathogens, ethical concerns surrounding its application is a major challenge.
Studies on titanium and silver nanoparticles have revealed that these materials may enter blood circulation and their insolubility leads to accumulation in organs. Liver and spleen are mainly responsible for distribution of nanoparticles, mediating their passage from intestine to the blood circulation.
Furthermore, inhalation of nanomaterials and probability of their entrance through skin penetration is a matter of high concern, especially for workers and consumers in direct and regular contact.
A very few studies have taken note of possible toxicity of nanoparticles amalgamated in food packaging, besides the data regarding their bioavailability, biodistribution and route followed is scanty.
Dr Punuri Jayasekhar Babu, Pachhunga University College, Mizoram University, said, “Very little work has been done to evaluate the toxic effects of nanoparticles on mammalian cells under in-vivo conditions. Inorganic nanoparticles are insoluble and pose a great challenge of bioaccumulation in human cells which may cause biotoxicity on a longer run, thus hampering its use in the food processing industry. It is worthwhile to note that the nanoparticles used for the packing materials may migrate into food when it comes in contact with packaging materials and hence, the impact of inorganic nanoparticles should be studied. Also, nanomaterials, especially nano packaging, should be only permitted after rigorous testing before applying them to food systems.”
Sharing a similar view, Dr Meenu Sachdeva, Asst General Manager, Ultimate Flexipack, Uflex Group says, “The application of nanotechnology gives benefits of improved performance in terms of barrier, mechanical and physio-chemical properties. In spite of all these advantages the drawback this technology has is its higher cost, which is hindering its growth. Another factor which contributes to hindrance in growth, is awareness. Though a lot of research on the subject is being carried out in academia, it is not available on a commercial scale.”
Much in this regard is expected to be addressed by the government under the aegis of Nano Mission undertaken by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The Centre had accorded approval for continuation of the Nano Mission in its Phase-II during the 12th Plan period with an allocation of Rs 650 crore, till 2017.
Although nanotechnology has great scope in the food industry, the application and marketing of nanotechnology remains uncertain due to limited scientific knowledge in regulating the interaction of nanoparticles with the surrounding environment.
But confidence can be built among the consumers by maintaining transparency in evaluating the effects of nanoparticles on humans and the surrounding environment and accentuating how researchers and industries should develop products that can easily get public acceptance. If the safety and security issues get addressed, nanotechnology will revolutionise the food processing and packaging industry to a great extent and minimise food wastage.