Nanoparticles can only be seen with the most powerful microscopes but they seemed even more difficult to detect last week on the sprawling display floor of the New Orleans convention center.
About 15,000 of the world’s top food scientists gathered for the Institute of Food Technologists annual conference. Also prowling the thousands of displays in the gigantic exhibition hall were a few big-name chefs and a bunch of hard-working cooks, recipe developers and purveyors of spices, flavorings and additives.
All were looking for the newest exciting ingredient, technique or spice that could spawn a new signature dish for their restaurant or a hot and sexy addition to what they put on the grocery shelves.
There were more than 50 booths under bright red banners offering food additives from China.
Tabasco, the Louisiana company from nearby Avery Island, Louisiana, was touting not only the seven flavors of their venerable sauce but the company’s lead chef was handing out samples of iced coffee and whipping cream spiked with the stuff, to see if it was popular enough to market. “Interesting” was the general verdict.
In a large booth in the center of the hall the international supplier Ajinomoto was demonstrating its new MSG-like flavor enhancer and Transglutaminase, an enzyme also called meat glue. A company sales rep said the enzyme’s use “is spreading wildly into all type of new applications.”
There was a continuous line of people waiting to get samples of glued-together beef, salmon and scallops as quickly as Chef Jill Houk could pull them off the grill and cut them into bite-sized pieces.
The Food Watchdog questioned a dozen or so people who had grabbed the samples and none said that they bothered at all by how the samples they were eating were formed as long as they smelled and tasted good.
But what was not being offered by the hundreds of corporate chefs that were cooking and serving their company’s newest innovations was anything containing nanoparticles.
Yet, elsewhere in the convention center scientists, food developers and safety regulators were leading discussions or presenting scientific papers on the newest uses of nanomaterial in the food and beverage industry.
The speakers said some laboratories are already testing engineered nanoparticles to reduce bacterial growth, maintain the freshness and longevity of baked goods, keep meat juicer, eliminate disagreeable, but harmless odors and reduce the amount of sugar and salt in recipes. Also, the sub-atomic manmade nano structures have been shown to create new flavors and enhance existing ones.
There is a simmering controversy among safety regulators in North America and abroad over the need to thoroughly test the safety of nanomaterial before they’re used in food. Because of this, most companies just don’t want to talk publicly about what they’re doing with this novel yet often untested technology.
For more on nano and food, check out what I wrote at Food Safety News.