Commonly-eaten foods in Australia have been found to contain nanoparticles, despite the nation’s food regulation agency’s denials.
For years, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has claimed there is “little evidence” of any nanoparticles in foods in Australia, and that no companies have applied for approval of such technologies. Therefore, the agency has refrained from testing for, or regulating, them.
However, environmentalist group, Friends Of The Earth, commissioned an independent study which scientifically tested a number of brands of foods for nanoparticles.
The test found nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) and silica (SiO2) in fourteen consumer products, including M&Ms, Nestlé Coffee Mate Creamer, Old El Paso Taco Mix and Woolworths Homebrand white sauce.
“For over two years, our food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has insisted that foods containing nanomaterials are not sold here on the basis that no companies have applied for approval,” said Friends Of The Earth.
“The agency has done no testing and hasn’t even asked manufacturers if its claim is true.
“FSANZ has also told Parliament that food products containing these ingredients will not be sold until they have been subject to safety testing and pre-market approval.
“By allowing these untested and potentially harmful substances into the food chain, FSANZ has inexcusably failed in its role as a regulator.”
A “nanoparticle” is a small object that acts as a whole unit.
It can range in size from one nanometre (one billionth of a metre) to 2500 nanometres.
Titanium dioxide is used in sunscreens to block ultraviolet rays. It is also used as a colouring agent in many products including foods and beverages.
It is number 171 on the International Numbering System for Food Additives, which is the system that Food Standards Australia New Zealand uses.
The International Agency on Research on Cancer classifies titanium dioxide nanoparticles as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. However, such nanoparticles in sunscreen are not absorbed through the skin.
“Nano titanium dioxide is used as a whitener and brightener in a range of foods, including lollies, chewing gum and doughnuts,” said Friends Of The Earth.
“Children between the age of 2 and 4 have been found to have the highest exposure levels.
“Animal studies of nano titanium dioxide show it can damage DNA, disrupt cell function, interfere with the immune system, cross the intestinal tract and cause organ damage.”
Silica is a chemical that is found in naturally in a number of foods including honey, fish, grains, green beans, and a number of fruits and vegetables. It is also found in quartz.
It is used as a food additive, for such purposes as an anti-caking agent, a beverage-clarifier, a dough-modifier, and an anti-foaming agent.
It is number 551 on the International Numbering System for Food Additives and can help to strengthen bones, nails and hair.
However, kidney stones have been reported in a small percentage of people taking antacids containing silica.
Potential harm caused by Nanoparticles
“This year the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) found evidence that nano silica can damage DNA and concluded that the data is inadequate and no conclusion of safety can be made,” says Friends Of The Earth.
“Several recent studies have shown that nano silica can cause liver toxicity.”
Friends Of The Earth has called for the products found to contain nanoparticles to be recalled.
It is also calling for a moratorium on the use of nanomaterials in food, until they can be scientifically proven to be safe.
In response to Friends Of The Earth’s findings, FSANZ issued a statement saying that the agency “and other international food regulatory agencies have not identified any health effect known to be associated with the use of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica, following oral ingestion in foods.”
“If FSANZ became aware of a potentially unsafe food or ingredient, we would conduct a risk assessment and recommend appropriate control measures,” FSANZ said.
“FSANZ actively monitors local and international research and commercialisation of manufactured nanomaterials relevant to food.
“We’ve also been researching the use of manufactured nano materials for several years.
“If changes to our processes were required as the result of any new evidence we would make those changes.”
The agency says it has hired a toxicologist to review nanotechnology and its applications.
The toxicologist’s report is expected to be published in late 2015 or early 2016.
Regarding Friends Of The Earth’s claim that FSANZ failed in its duty of care, the agency said it “is aware that previous studies have shown that titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide used in foods include some particles that are in the nanoscale range.”
“However, FSANZ and other international food regulatory agencies have not identified any health effect known to be associated with the use of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica, following oral ingestion in foods,” the FSANZ says.
“If FSANZ become aware of a health risk associated with the presence of nanoscale particles of titanium dioxide or silicon dioxide in foods, it could conduct a survey and introduce requirements in the Food Standards Code.”
Friends Of The Earth claims FSANZ’s statement shows the agency “has its head in the sand”.
Friends Of The Earth says there have been plenty of peer-reviewed studies of nano silica and nano titanium dioxide on animals, and that such tests have linked the substances to damaged DNA, disrupted cell function, interference with the immune system, and organ damage.
The environmentalist group says the reason there is no evidence of harm to humans is because no studies of the effect of nanoparticles on humans have been undertaken.