United States Mission to the European Union
Foreign Agricultural Service
United States Department Of Agriculture
Last modified: February 11, 2020

Nanotechnology in Food

Nanotechnology can be used in food production to enhance the taste, color, flavor, texture and consistency of a variety of foods. Only few applications are available in the EU within the food area, mostly related to supplements and packaging. Most applications are not even referred to as nano, since they were assessed and approved under the existing regulatory framework.  A major future challenge in the food area would be the production of healthy food products with less fat, salt, preservatives. 

New nanotech products therefore have to pass first a risk assessment on a case-by case basis performed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) followed by a scientific opinion. EFSA developed guidance on risk assessment concerning potential risks from applications of nanoscience and nanotechnologies to food and animal feed, which provides practical advice on a risk assessment methodology for engineered nanomaterials used in food and feed. It outlines the additional data needed for the assessment of a material when used in its nanoform to address potential intrinsic hazards that may arise.

The Commission introduced an overarching working definition last year, by its Commission Recommendation. The definition is based on the size of the particles of a material, rather than hazard or risk. It is designed to be used for regulatory purposes and will cover all uses, but more specific definitions are being developed and will exist alongside. The definition will be reviewed in 2014 in the light of technical and scientific progress.

Regulating nano in food in the EU – The current EU legislative framework covers in principle the potential health, safety and environmental risks in relation to nanomaterials but may have to be modified in the light of new information becoming available. DG Sanco has always proposed the use of the existing EU food legislation wherever possible, since it provides a good framework to cover all new applications in the food area as well as existing applications. The present legislation on food additives and novel foods already requires risk evaluation and pre-marketing notification. The ongoing revision of specific food legislation addresses explicitly the use of nanomaterials in all foods.

Currently, EU food legislation contains the following provisions on nano:

Food Information to ConsumersRegulation 1169/2011 contains a definition on engineered nanomaterials and a provision on nano labeling: “For products containing nanomaterials, this must be clearly indicated, using the word ‘nano’, in the list of ingredients”.

Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 on Food additives states that when “there is a significant change in the production methods or in the starting materials used” for food additives already on the Community list of approved food additives, “or there is a change in particle size, for example through nanotechnology, the food additive prepared by those new methods or materials shall be considered as a different additive and a new entry in the Community lists or a change in the specifications shall be required before it can be placed on the market”.

Food Contact materialsRegulation 450/2009 on active and intelligent packaging states that “new technologies to engineer substances with different chemical and physical properties than the same substances at a larger scale, for example nanoparticles, should be assessed at a case-by-case basis as regards their risk until more information is known about such new technology”.

Novel foods – Engineered nanomaterials require a novel food authorization before being used in food.  The definition currently set out in the Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 is transferred to the new Novel Foods Regulation 2015/2283 (applicable as of January 1, 2018).  

Other initiatives in the EU:

The Commission has been working on the EU strategy on nanotechnology and nanoscience since the beginning of 2010 and has now confirmed to indefinitely postpone its work on the strategy. The commission is currently focusing on the implementation of the new Horizon 2020 research programme which will also address nanotechnology as an emerging science. Major objectives for a nanotechnology strategy have already been incorporated into the new research framework programme Horizon 2020.