What You Can’t See Might Heal You
Imagine millions of tiny devices – each a thousandth of the diameter of human hair – at work in your body changing the very structure of the nutrients you consume to make them healthier. You could eat a piece of chocolate cake, for example, and millions of little robots would go to work turning that cake into the vitamins and minerals you need to thrive.
Sounds like a futuristic background note in a science fiction novel, doesn’t it? And yet, this kind of technology is much closer at hand than you might think.
Straight Out of Star Trek
Any Star Trek fan can tell you that nanotechnology uses microscopic robots to make changes within an organism, like the human body. The nanotechnology in use today is far from the Borg-style, technology-gone-wrong plots you’ve seen on TV, though.
Real nanotechnology doesn’t necessarily use robots – it just uses very small materials designed to perform a specific function. How small? We’re talking about particles that are 100 nanometers or less that’s a hundred times smaller than what the human eye can see with a microscope.[i]
It takes specialized equipment to manipulate and implement nanotechnology within a product, but you can do a lot of neat stuff with particles that small.
For instance, one company makes socks with nanoparticles that fight odor. Another company in Israel makes canola oil with nanoparticles that make it easier for the body to absorb healthy phytosterols from the oil. Another is using nanotechnology to enhance the germ fighting ability of toothpaste.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies maintains a list of products that use nanotechnology. It’s absolutely fascinating, and a lot of fun to explore.
A Better Way to Do Surgery
One of the most promising applications of nanotechnology in its current form is how it will change the way doctors do surgery.
Nanotechnology will eventually lead to surgical instruments that allow doctors to perform surgery in a much less invasive manner. Imagine being able to undergo heart surgery without the doctor having to open your chest or stop your heart. The improved survival rates and recovery times will make a huge difference in the level of care patients are able to receive and in the quality of life they will have after a surgery.[ii]
Nanoparticles can also improve treatments for diseases like cancer. Right now, treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy affect both healthy and cancerous cells. With nanotechnology, doctors would be able to target the disease on a cell-by-cell basis, leaving healthy cells untouched and undamaged.
Are Nanoparticles in Food Safe?
In the United States, the regulations surrounding the use of nanoparticles in foods are still being sorted out. Some companies have already begun using nanotechnology to enhance foods. One company uses nanoparticles in a chocolate shake to boost the chocolate flavor while cutting down on the need for sugar. The nanoparticles also help the body to use the nutrients in the chocolate more efficiently.
This process of allowing valuable nutrients to be absorbed more easily while making undesirable compounds pass through and out of the body is the one that most fascinates food scientists. As part of digestion, the nanoparticles break down and are also eliminated. That means that the nanoparticles don’t become a permanent part of your system.[iii]
When it comes to our food supply, it’s healthy to be skeptical about big changes. Advances such as food applications for nanotechnology should move very slowly, with plenty of research before we leap ahead. Nanotechnology is a fascinating field, and if it can eventually safely help people to eat healthier despite bad diet choices well, that might be a good thing. I do doubt, though, that compensating with nanoparticles can ever really replace the simple notion of making healthy food choicesat least not in the foreseeable future.
Nanotechnology is here to stay, and in most cases, that’s a good thing. It means the products we purchase at the store will work better and last longer and that surgery will become a less frightening and dangerous procedure. It may even mean that our junk foods become health foods. That’s a long way off, so in the meantime, it’s a good idea to make healthy choices when it comes to the foods you eat.[i] Nanotechnology Surges Into Health and Fitness Products. Science Daily. 10/7/2007 [ii] Nanotechnology in Natural Health Products. Nutralegacy.com. Viewed 2/24/2009 [iii] Could Nanotechnology Make an Average Donut Into Health Food? Science Daily. 2/18/2009