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Pronounced /ˌnænə(ʊ)fuːd/Help with pronunciation

Whenever the prefix nano- appears, referring to any manipulation of matter at near-molecular levels, controversy follows. Opponents of such techniques hold in particular that they shouldn’t be used in foodstuffs until we know much more about their effects on human bodies.

Nanofood refers to the employment of nanotechnological techniques in any part of the food chain — cultivation, production, processing or packaging — not just in food itself. Big companies are researching the possibilities, some of which sound like science-fiction — smart dust that’s inserted into plants and animals so that farmers can monitor their health in real time; packaging that includes smart sensors that can sniff out gases given off by deteriorating food or alternatively tell you when it is ripe; a drink whose flavour can be changed just by microwaving it; and stabilise nutrients in food, such as omega-3 fats, iron or vitamins — which degrade quickly in storage — by enclosing them in separate tiny containers. The only foodstuffs currently available that have been modified through nanotechnology are a few nutritional supplements, but this is expected to change within a year or two.

The word first came to public attention as the title of a report of in 2004 by a German firm, the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy. It is in the news because of another report, published by Friends of the Earth in March 2008, which takes an extremely sceptical view of the technology and the likelihood of it being accepted by consumers.

Food packaging using nanotechnology is more advanced than nanofoods, with products on the market that incorporate nanomaterials that scavenge oxygen, fight bacteria, keep in moisture or sense the state of the food.

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Mar. 2008

But while the food industry is hooked on nanotech’s promises, it is also very nervous. For if British consumers are sceptical about GM foods, then they are certainly not ready for nanofood.

Daily Mail, 20 Jan. 2007

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Apr. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-nan2.htm
Last modified: 12 April 2008.