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Nanopowder on Your Doughnuts: Should You Worry?

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Courtesy of / Qfamily

There are nano-sized particles in your food. Does this make you nervous?

A new report from an environmental health group, As You Sow, raises concern about nanoparticles in some popular sweets. The group says it found particles of titanium dioxide less than 10 nanometers in size in the powdered sugar coating on donuts from Dunkin’ and Hostess (now sadly defunct). The group argues that the nanoparticles have no business in any kind of food until safety testing is done; in this case, the tiny bits could make donuts even unhealthier.

Nano-sized particles, roughly one-billionth of a meter in diameter (much smaller than the width of a human hair), have been in food for decades at least, often an unintentional byproduct of processing techniques. But a whole range of novel nano-sized particles—ranging from tiny flakes of titanium dioxide to whiten powdered donuts to submicroscopic silver bits to kill microbes—are showing up today in food and food packaging on purpose.

The nanoparticles on the donuts may fall into the happenstance category and result from the milling processes used on the powdered sugar mixture. “Whether these TiO2 nanoparticles were engineered or a byproduct of manufacturing processes is not known,” the report notes, and the point was backed up by As You Sow chief executive Andrew Behar, who added in an email that the nanoparticles “may or may not have been present for a while. We have two experts that disagree on this: one saying that you cannot mill to 10 [nanometers] and the other saying that it is a result of crystals being shattered.”

The small size is worrisome regardless, health advocates argue, because it allows for unique properties not seen in larger particles. For example, the tininess of nanoparticles allows them to travel through the body more widely, and enter cells more readily, than larger particles do. So far, no one knows whether nanomaterials in food or food packaging pose a health risk and titanium dioxide nanoparticles are likely to be benign given their ubiquity in sunscreens, lotions and other personal care products. But scientists do know that certain nanoparticles can kill cells; in fact, silver nanoparticles are often employed specifically to kill bacteria.

Dunkin’ Donuts is not the only company facing greater pressure to identify nanoparticles in its products and verify their safety. The European Union already requires disclosure on food packaging of any “nanomaterials” with one or more dimensions measuring less than 100 nanometers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called for companies to submit studies of the human health safety of any nano-sized materials intended for use in food, even if larger particle sizes have already been approved as safe. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has ongoing tests on the environmental toxicity of nanoparticles used in sunscreen, such as TiO2, which may inform research into human health impacts. Regardless, industry and government spend far more on research and development of new nanotechnology than on safety testing.

Many companies appear not to know if their products contain nanoparticles or may be reluctant to submit to scrutiny. As You Sow attempted to survey 2,500 in the food industry for the new report that revealed the nanoparticles in donuts. Only 26 responded and only two had specific policies regarding nanoparticles. Ten of the companies did not know whether they used nanoparticles or not and only two admitted to intentionally incorporating them—both use nanotechnology in packaging rather than the food product itself. “We plan to work with scientists to understand if they will leach into food,” Behar says.

As a next step, As You Sow is attempting to crowdfund further testing of foods for the presence of nanoparticles, such as M&Ms, Pop-Tarts and Trident gum—all likely to employ the same TiO2 found in the donuts and equally likely to be unintentional and potentially long-standing. “What are the health implications of nanomaterials that we know are in our food supply?” Behar asks. “How do we set up a system to make sure that they are safe?”


About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 16 Comments

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  1. 1. leggedfish 8:08 pm 02/6/2013

    They also need to test the nano particles to see which ones are the most delicious ;P

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  2. 2. alan6302 9:01 pm 02/6/2013

    Don’t worry about the nano emissions of the I.C.E. .That is a secret. Nanoparticles are an important ingredient to a genetic bomb.

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  3. 3. Shortie 10:56 pm 02/6/2013

    The disparity between US and EU response to issue is signficant:
    “The European Union already requires disclosure on food packaging of any “nanomaterials” with one or more dimensions measuring less than 100 nanometers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called for companies to submit studies of the human health safety of any nano-sized materials intended for use in food…”
    You can see where this is going.

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  4. 4. deathpyre42 2:41 am 02/7/2013

    Why in the world would one need to whiten powdered donuts? It just seems like a waste of titanium dioxide.
    This is the exact reason (well, second to taste)why I think that donuts are best acquired from local bakeries, so one can determine the quality of the ingredients. Seriously, a pigment typically made for paint in donuts, what a travesty.

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  5. 5. mipakeli 10:16 am 02/7/2013

    I wouldn’t mind some powder which improves poopability of their product like Metamucil. They can sprinkle their donuts with that fine with me!

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  6. 6. Fanandala 11:04 am 02/7/2013

    Aren’t nano particles abundant in nature? In windblown dust, sea mist, some pollen etc. I also think some of the pollutants are nanoparticles. Have we not evolved to live with many of them?

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  7. 7. NeroMaj 11:40 am 02/7/2013

    @Shortie – I think the safety of a food product should be proven before it can be used, not the other way around. The human population today is the guinea pig of big business.

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  8. 8. alan6302 1:26 pm 02/7/2013

    The snake in the tree of life is a genetic bomb

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  9. 9. levet1066 4:30 pm 02/7/2013

    Since TiO2 is so common why not just short cut the testing by seeing how small it breaks down to in the environment, Look for nano size particles in dirt, if they exist in the expected numbers then it is safe to assume we as a species have been exposed to them forever. If they were toxic we would not have made it this far

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  10. 10. skwirrlmaster 7:12 pm 02/7/2013

    Jesus Christ… A guy at MIT has found a CURE for viruses and can’t get a funding to take it through rabbit, ape and human testing but we can dig the money out of nano-tight butts to test this crap?

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  11. 11. Happy Hal 10:19 pm 02/7/2013

    I don’t eat doughnuts, just Timbits.

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  12. 12. gregorycrocetti 1:33 am 02/8/2013

    This is science journalism at it’s sloppiest.

    The author states:
    “So far, no one knows whether nanomaterials in food or food packaging pose a health risk and titanium dioxide nanoparticles are likely to be benign given their ubiquity in sunscreens, lotions and other personal care products.”

    However, the entire debate around the health risks posed by titanium dioxide (and zinc oxide) nanoparticles in sunscreens centres around the question of exposure – particularly, whether nanoparticles of these metal oxides in sunscreens can penetrate our skin.

    Numerous experiments testing the effects of titanium dioxide nanoparticles ingested and inhaled by mice, rats, rabbits, and smaller forms of life have consistently demonstrated a whole range of toxicities, including cytotoxicity and genotoxicity.

    Though perhaps you were aware of much of this research, but forgot the risk equation:
    Harm (toxicity) x Exposure = Risk

    To draw conclusions on the risk posed through completely different routes of exposure (dermal penetration vs ingestion) is ridiculous.

    And given the warnings from nanotoxicologists on the REAL risks posed by the ingestion of nanoparticles – particularly some of the nastier ones like titanium dioxide – your writing is grossly irresponsible.

    I understand we all have deadlines to meet, but do your homework properly next time before you start drawing your own conclusions…

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  13. 13. Quinn the Eskimo 3:07 am 02/9/2013

    nanoequal in our coffee will be an avenue to balance out our nanotitanium in sugar! Then we can pass tiny nanorabbitpellets. Constipation will become a disease of the past. Squirt.

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  14. 14. noahliquid 10:43 pm 02/11/2013

    I love doughnuts and they might be killing me in amazing new ways. The familiar and always fashionable diabetes and heart disease are to be expected with the mass consumption of our powdered friend, but now it seems the doughnut is causing doughy destruction with radical unknown methods.The hidden death hides in the delicious powder. Scientists are concerned about nanoparticles, a vicious byproduct of modern processing techniques. These particles such as titanium dioxide are one-billionth of a meter big and are capable of killing microscopic creatures. You may be thinking
    “Ah ha, I am not a microscopic creature therefore all of this insane exaggeration, is unwarranted and this entire paragraph is a waste of ink and my precious time.” Well reader, you should know that you are comprised of many tiny creatures all doing their part, so that we can stay around to find out what is going to happen in the last season of Breaking Bad. These nanoparticles are capable of accessing our cellular creatures and wreaking havoc from the inside out. Our technologically deficit ancestors never had to deal with these unimaginably small wrenches being thrown into out biological systems, so we are evolutionarily unprepared. It’s a scary world with us against the doughnut powder. One last scary thought, if the tiny things are in the food, then what other friendly items are harboring microscopic hazards. All I know for sure, is from now on I’m sticking to glazed.

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  15. 15. R.Blakely 2:00 am 02/19/2013

    We have more to fear than nanoparticles. Membranes in our intestines do not allow particles as large as nanoparticles to pass. For example, reverse osmosis membranes have pores that only allow water to pass thru. Membranes in our intestines are similar except the pores are slightly larger, and the pores are much smaller than 10 nanometers. Our intestines do not allow large molecules to pass into the blood.
    I think, we should fear bacteria in our sugar and salt. Sugar and salt contain bacteria that are not killed. Sugar and salt are not clean and sterile like we imagine they are. Sugar and salt should be treated with radiation before they are allowed to be sold.

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  16. 16. reinstenanoventures 1:43 am 02/22/2013

    I totally agree with Mr. R.Blakely that we should fear from the nanoparticles for its availability in our food.
    Nanomaterials Supplier

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