Food packaging

Today, one of the major application areas of nanomaterials within the food sector is in the development of our food packaging. Aside from providing lighter and more durable materials such as plastic containers and bottles, nanomaterials can also be used to prevent food spoilage.

Using nanomaterials to preserve food and keep it safe from bacteria

Food packaging materials are usually made from plastics. Their main weakness is their inability to stop gases such as oxygen and other small molecules from penetrating and reaching the food. Adding nanomaterials such as nanoclays, titanium nitride or titanium dioxide can enhance the properties of a material, making it lighter and stronger, for example. In addition, nanomaterials can prevent gases and light from entering the package and causing degradation, and they can also have antimicrobial properties – which contributes to keeping food fresh during long storage periods and safe from harmful bacteria.

Innovation is taking place to create more sustainable materials in the food packaging industry

Cellulose is one of the most abundant materials found in nature, which can be extracted from plants and trees. Researchers have developed biodegradable composite membranes from cellulose nanoparticles. Research suggests that these bio-based films can stop water from entering the packaging, protect fresh food from harmful bacteria, and potentially extend product shelf-life. This means that the biofilms could have applications in the food packaging industry for the reduction of food waste and food-borne diseases, although their potential toxicity has not yet been fully studied.

Researchers are also developing ‘smart’ packaging that uses nano-sized sensors to monitor the condition of the food. A large variety of detectors based on nanoparticles have been developed for detecting contaminants in food. When a contaminant comes into contact with the nanoparticles, a reaction takes place between the nanomaterial and the contaminant that gives you a visual signal alerting you that the food has gone bad. These nanosensors can be used by suppliers to indicate the condition of the food to consumers.

Migration of nanomaterials into food

The risk to consumers from the use of nanotechnology in food packaging is related to the potential migration of the nanomaterials into the food. Currently, data on migration is very limited, but so far the available data has shown very low levels of migration. Many nanotechnology applications are still being researched, but a few are already allowed on the market by the Member States and the European Commission, such as titanium nitride in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. Nanomaterials used in food packaging in Europe must be assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) prior to their authorisation. Nano-sized titanium nitride is among the few approved nanomaterials and it is used as an additive in plastic bottles.

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