Nanomaterials have great potential to provide new benefits for certain kinds of packaging, but their potential environmental effects are unknown and must be carefully studied, according to a report commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Nanomaterials are substances composed of particles measuring no more than a billionth of a meter. The report,Assuring the Safety of Nanomaterials in Food Packaging, by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, mentioned two possible applications for nanomaterials in packaging. They could form a barrier to gas or moisture while maintaining clarity, and they could provide antimicrobial protection, either by interfering with microorganisms directly or changing color to warn of their presence.

But the report cautioned about potential problems involving what happens to the nanoparticles during and after their use. Absorption into the human system due to migration into the food product is one such problem. Environmental migration and absorption after the packaging is discarded, by humans, animals or plants, is another. “It is clear that those developing such ENMs [engineered nanoscale materials] have significant scientific and technical work to do,” the report concludes.

To download a copy of the report,