A recent article in Seed magazine illuminates a debate that’s been simmering for a few years: nanotechnology’s role in food. The writer, Sushma Subramanian, singles out one particle in particular—nanosilver—which was first commercially used as an antibacterial agent for washing machines in 2003. It has since been linked to killing AIDS, fighting off hepatitis B, and is now being used as an antibacterial agent in food packaging. Which all makes it sound like a molecular superhero, right?

But as nanotechnology’s role in the food world has developed, the lack of legislation surrounding its use has become problematically obvious. Maybe the FDA just doesn’t have powerful enough microscopes, because it has yet to define a comprehensive list of food safe nanoparticles. Groups like the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) are petitioning to get regulations on the table, but progress has been slow.

What could these tiny silver particles do to you? The EPA states that an adult male can ingest up to 0.3 milligrams of silver per day—at one millionth of a millimeter in size, these nanosilver particles don’t seem very dangerous. But the growing fear is that they could do permanent damage to the brain and lungs. And beyond that, many believe that they pose an environmental threat as well.

Even if nanosilver turns out to be harmless, it’s only one of a myriad of nanoparticles we can expect to see popping up in and around food in the next few years. As the Boy Scouts say but federal programs never seem to remember: always be prepared. For more info, check out PEN’s website, and especially the study on the safety of nanomaterials in food packaging.

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