Nanomaterials

Nano-powdered Donut

As You Sow found nanoparticles, which have not been proven safe for human consumption, in kid-friendly foods like doughnuts. Credit: Jacqueline Argote

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at the molecular scale to build structures, tools, or products. This emerging science offers new opportunities for food industry applications, such as stronger flavorings and colorings. However, at such a small scale, nanoparticles are more likely to pass through biological membranes, circulate through the body, and enter cells, potentially causing harm as they move through the body.

The introduction of nanotechnology into the food industry has raised significant concerns for both consumers and investors. The risks and benefits of this emerging technology are still being discovered and there is a disconcerting lack of scientific studies on the effects nanomaterials have on human health and the environment.

Dunkin’ Donuts to Remove Nanomaterials from Powdered Donuts

As You Sow Withdraws Shareholder Proposal on Nanomaterials Use Following Dunkin’s Commitment

Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of the Dunkin’ Donuts chain, has agreed to remove titanium dioxide, a whitening agent that is commonly a source of nanomaterials, from all powdered sugar used to make the company’s donuts. As a result of this progress, the advocacy group As You Sow has withdrawn a shareholder proposal asking Dunkin’ to assess and reduce the risks of using nanomaterials in its food products.

Read our release

Watch Danielle Fugere,
As You Sow President and Chief Counsel
on Al-Jazeera America

In 2013, As You Sow commissioned independent laboratory tests of Dunkin’s white powdered donuts, finding they contained titanium dioxide nanomaterials. Nanomaterials – substances engineered to have extremely small dimensions – offer new food industry applications. However, the small size of nanomaterials may also result in greater toxicity for human health and the environment. Insufficient safety information exists regarding these manufactured particles, especially for use in foods; preliminary studies show that nanomaterials can cause DNA and chromosomal damage, organ damage, inflammation, brain damage, and genital malformations, among other harms.

Other Recent News

Coalition of NGOs Releases Nanotech Recommendation Reflecting Concern About Use of Nanotech In Foods

Companies Urged to Address Potential Risks from Emerging Technology

Responding to rising concern about manufacturers using unregulated nanomaterials in food, a coalition of advocacy groups in the U.S. and abroad has released a policy recommendation for companies in food-related industries to assist them in avoiding or reducing the risks from nanomaterials in food products and packaging.

Read more on our Nanomaterials Policy page

The recommendation requests that companies: adopt a detailed public policy explaining their use of nanomaterials, if any; publish a safety analysis for any nanomaterials being used; issue supplier standards; label all products that contain nanoparticles smaller than 500nm; and adopt a hierarchy of hazard controls approach to prevent exposure of its employees to nanomaterials.

Investors Warn Companies to Cease Risky Political Spending to Fight GMO Labeling

Dunkin’ Brands Shareholders Deliver Strong Call for Product Safety Report on Nanomaterials in Food Products

abbott gmo vote release - square image

First-of-its-Kind Shareholder Vote Supported by 18.7% Investors

Our proposal requesting a product safety report on nanomaterials at Dunkin’ Brands, the first of its kind to go to a vote, was supported by 18.7% of shareholders representing $547 million in shares.

The vote makes clear that shareholders are concerned about the risks of using nanomaterials in food products before it is proven safe for human consumption. Investors want assurances that Dunkin’ is addressing this important public health issue. The resolution asks the company to report on actions it is taking to reduce or eliminate risk of human health impacts, such as eliminating or disclosing the use of nanomaterials until they are proven safe through long-term testing.

The shareholder proposal filed by As You Sow also called on Dunkin’ to identify products or packaging that currently contains nanomaterials.

Using technology before it is proven safe exposes the company to risk of litigation and consumer backlash. We will continue working with Dunkin’ to ensure the labeling or elimination of nanomaterials in food and food packaging until proven safe.

Read our press release

Background

It is reported that nanotechnology is already being used in food and food related products. However, due to the food industry’s lack of transparency on the issue, concrete information about whether, and to what extent, nanomaterials are being used in food products is difficult to obtain.

The risks and benefits of this emerging technology are still being discovered, and there is insufficient scientific data on the effects nanomaterials have on human health and the environment. Many peer-reviewed studies indicate a range of potential health harms associated with consumption of nanomaterials.

Regulatory agencies are also not up-to-speed on nanotechnologies. The EPA found that approximately 90% of nanoscale materials that are likely commercially available for the industry were not reported under the organization’s voluntary reporting program. Similarly, The Food and Drug Administration has recognized that ingredients that are generally recognized as safe at the macro level may not be safe at the nanoscale.

Read our FAQs about Nanomaterials to learn more

Shareholder Actions

As You Sow filed the first shareholder resolutions on nanomaterials and food safety in 2008, asking Kraft and McDonald’s to report on their use of nanomaterials in their products and packaging.

In 2009, our dialogue with McDonald’s resulted in the company publicly stating that it “does not currently support the use by suppliers of nano-engineered materials in the production of any of our food, packaging, and toys.”

Kraft also responded with a public statement about their use of nanomaterials in food and food packaging including that “If we ever intend to use nanotechnology, we will make sure that the appropriate environmental, health and safety concerns have been addressed.”

In 2011, to help increase knowledge about nanomaterials in the food supply chain, As You Sow released a framework on sourcing nanomaterials for food and food packaging. The Framework provides guidelines for food and food packaging companies to assess their exposure to, and the potential risks of, sourcing products that contain nanomaterials, including recommendations on what information they should obtain from suppliers regarding the safety testing of nanomaterials and products containing nanomaterials.

In 2013, to gain a more accurate understanding of industry policies and the current status of nanomaterial use in the U.S. food market, As You Sow conducted a survey of 2,500 food manufacturers about their use of, and policies related to, nanomaterials in food products. The vast majority of companies, however, failed to respond to the survey, maintaining a marked lack of transparency on the issue.

As You Sow began testing food items favored by children for nanomaterials and found that two popular brands’ white powdered sugar donuts do contain nanomaterials. The results of our survey and a description of our testing results are discussed in Slipping Through the Cracks: An Issue Brief on Nanomaterials in Foods. This brief aims to inform companies, investors, and consumers about the emerging use of engineered nanomaterials in food and food related products. It highlights the potential risks of nanotechnology for companies who are knowingly or unknowingly using it in their products and for public health.

2015 Shareholder Engagements