Skip to main content
English en

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is a field of applied sciences and technologies involving the control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale, normally below 100 nanometres. Nanomaterials may exhibit different physical and chemical properties compared with the same substances at normal scale, such as increased chemical reactivity due to greater surface area.

Nanotechnologies enable the management of food ingredients on a molecular level. Nanotechnology products could have a substantial impact on the food and feed sector in the future, potentially offering benefits for industry and the consumer, although possible risks need to be considered. Companies and institutes worldwide are currently researching and developing applications in fields such as the treatment of the mechanical and sensorial properties of food – for instance to achieve changed taste or texture – and modified nutritional value. Nanotechnology may also be used in food packaging, for instance to ensure better protection or to detect how fresh food is. The specific properties and characteristics of nanomaterials need to be considered for any potential health risks.

Activities

EFSA’s Scientific Committee provides scientific advice on how to assess applications from food operators to use (engineered) nanomaterials in food additives, enzymes, flavourings, food contact materials, novel foods, food supplements, feed additives and pesticides. The work considers the risks of nanomaterials and  nano particles that might be present in the food chain, for human and animal health. In the future, this advice will be extended to the assessment of the environmental impact of nano particles.

EFSA’s scientific panels will consider this advice from the Scientific Committee in their safety assessments of specific nanomaterials, for instance in the areas of food additives, novel foods and food contact materials.

This advice will also be taken into account by EFSA’s Nano Network, which furthers cooperation and networking between EFSA and  Member States on nanoscience and nanotechnology in relation to food and feed safety risk assessments. The network facilitates the exchange of information and expertise, enhances dialogue and builds mutual understanding of risk assessment principles between EFSA and the Member States. We publish an annual report of the network’s activities.

Latest

Two new guidance documents from EFSA’s Scientific Committee will help to further clarify how EFSA’s scientists approach the assessment of nanomaterials in the food and feed chain:

Both documents also set down data and information requirements for applicants when submitting materials for assessment as part of EU market authorisation procedures, e.g. for use as food additives or food contact materials.

Milestones

  1. 2021
    May

    EFSA holds a scientific colloquium on “A coordinated approach to assessing the human health risks of microplastics and nanoplastics in food”.

  2. 2020
    November

    EFSA publishes an external report on existing guidance and other published sources related to the environmental risk assessment of nanomaterials. The report will form the basis for EFSA future guidance on assessing environmental risks from the application of nanoscience and nanotechnology in the food and feed chain.

  3. July

    EFSA asks for feedback on draft technical guidance on technical requirements for regulated food and feed product applications to establish the presence of small particles including nanoparticles.

  4. 2018
    July

    New guidance comes out on assessing the safety for humans and animals of nanoscience and nanotechnology applications. It gives practical advice on the testing and methods to apply.

  5. 2016
    June

    EFSA’s scientists provide a state of the science overview on microplastics and nanoplastics as contaminants in food.

  6. 2010

    EFSA’s Advisory Forum establishes the Nano Network to develop cooperation and networking with Member States on nanoscience.

EFSA's role

Since 2006 EFSA has been following developments in nanotechnology within its remit – providing independent scientific advice and technical support to risk managers – including reviewing the current state of knowledge and latest developments in nanotechnology regarding food and feed.

EU framework

The European Union is taking an “integrated, safe and responsible approach” to the development of nanotechnologies. This includes:

FAQ

What are nanotechnologies?

Nanotechnologies involve, among other things, the use in the food and feed chain of substances of a very small size. A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a metre (the term comes from the Greek word nanos, dwarf). Chemicals are generally considered to be nano sized if they are around 100 nm or less in size.

Why use nano sized substances?

Chemicals that are very small can have different properties compared to the larger sized versions. This can offer opportunities for manufacturing products such as medicines, cosmetics and foods, with the potential to behave differently in useful ways. However this changed behaviour compared to larger sized chemicals could also raise possible risks.

How are nanotechnologies being used?

Nanotechnologies have a range of actual or potential uses. For example sunscreens are available that use chemicals that at a nano size make the sunscreen transparent rather than opaque, but still block UV rays. In the food area, it could be possible to use nano-sized chemicals to improve food packaging or enhance the nutritional value of a product.

Why is EFSA involved?

Because there could be risks from nano sized chemicals due to characteristics and properties that aren’t observed for the larger size versions of chemicals. The use of nano sized chemicals, whilst offering potentially useful applications and benefits, needs also to be considered for any possible risks. That is EFSA’s role in relation to the food chain. EFSA provides independent scientific advice to risk managers in Europe to help them decide on any appropriate action to protect the consumer.

Are any food products currently available that use nano sized substances?

The approval of products sold in Europe is the responsibility of the EC and Member States. EFSA would not be in a position to know about what is on the market as it is not our responsibility, but the technology exists for some applications, and products may be available from outside of Europe that could contain nano sized substances either in the product or its packaging.

Is there a regulatory framework for nanotechnology

Regulation is not within the remit of EFSA, which provides independent scientific advice to risk managers. It is the responsibility of risk managers to consider appropriate measures and assess existing legislation, in light of EFSA’s opinions. Information from the EC on the regulatory aspects of nanomaterials.

Published on this topic

See all