I Like My Food Dumb

Joe Lavin's Humor Column

From The Boston Herald

I Like My Food Dumb

October 5, 2002

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I've heard of "smart" cards and "smart" appliances, but now some food companies want to make "smart" food, which begs the question: if the food was so smart in the first place, how come it's now food?

They hope to do this with nanotechnology, a science in which matter can be manipulated at the molecular level. By creating machines and particles less than one billionth of a meter wide, scientists hope to find new ways to deliver medicine into the body or to fight cancer on a cell-by-cell basis. Computer companies, meanwhile, are fantasizing about making even smaller computers. And now food companies are salivating at the chance to create food that is more fun. Personally, I would settle for better tasting food over fun food, but food manufacturers may not feel the same.

Kraft Foods, for example, wants to make clear, flavorless drinks -- you know, kind of like water -- with tiny floating capsules that contain thousands of colors and flavors. If you feel like grape juice, you would simply buy this liquid and then zap it with a special device that emits ultrasound frequencies. Choose the right setting, and -- voila! -- the grape nanocapsules will burst open to create grape juice. Or you could just go to the market and buy a fresh bottle of grape juice, but I guess that's not quite as fun.

We could even create odd combinations like maroon-colored lime soda, but somehow I don't anticipate a desire to do that. Really, the last thing I need is thousands of beverage choices. I already have enough trouble making a decision now. Chances are I would probably turn the ultrasound to the random setting and just drink whatever I got.

Admittedly, I'm not entirely against all this. It's easy to think of ways food could be improved. How about Brie without the white stuff? Or ice cream that won't melt? As a lazy bachelor, I even have visions of food that cooks itself with the help of nano-sized robots.

"Ah, Joe, why's your can of tomato sauce moving?"

"Oh, don't worry. Those are just my nanobots. They're making dinner tonight."

The real problem, however, is that companies are moving forward with this technology before they know exactly how safe it is. A book by Eric Drexler in 1986 discussed the so-called "gray goo" effect -- the fear that nanobots programmed to replicate themselves could get out of control and reproduce so much that they take over the earth.

It sounds far-fetched, but no one really knows how nanoparticles will react in the real world. What if all those grape nanocapsules get out of control and start turning everything they can find into grape juice? Well, I guess that could be fun too.

Even some of the higher-minded goals carry serious risks. Medical researchers want to create nanobots that will slide past the immune system to deliver medicine directly to the brain. This sounds great, but what if they accidentally carry toxins into the brain as well -- or grape juice for that matter? What happens then? In the rush to make money off this technology, questions like these are not being given the attention they deserve.

Some will claim I'm just paranoid, and perhaps nanotechnology is harmless. Still, before I start ingesting fun food full of these particles, I would appreciate it if more studies were conducted to determine how safe they are.

Let's face it. It's easy to be afraid when you're talking about tiny, little machines that can't be seen with the human eye. I just hope that the little guys aren't out to get me.

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