Food packaging could have a negative impact on the functioning of the digestive system of the human body, research has revealed.

The study, which was conducted by scientists at Binghamton University with the title ‘ZnO nanoparticles affect intestinal function in an in vitro model’, assesses the impact of zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles on humans.

These nanoparticles, which are present in the lining of certain canned goods, are used for their antimicrobial properties and to prevent sulphur-producing foods from staining.

Binghamton University bioengineering associate professor Gretchen Mahler said: “We found that zinc oxide nanoparticles, at doses that are relevant to what you might normally eat in a meal or a day, can change the way that your intestine absorbs nutrients or your intestinal cell gene and protein expression.

“They tend to settle onto the cells representing the gastrointestinal tract and cause remodelling or loss of the microvilli, which are tiny projections on the surface of the intestinal absorptive cells that help to increase the surface area available for absorption.

“ZnO nanoparticles can change the way your intestine absorbs nutrients.”

“This loss of surface area tends to result in a decrease in nutrient absorption. Some of the nanoparticles also cause pro-inflammatory signalling at high doses, and this can increase the permeability of the intestinal model.”

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Mahler added that an increase in intestinal permeability could allow unwanted compounds to pass through into the bloodstream.

As part of the research, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, scientists studied canned corn, tuna, asparagus and chicken through mass spectrometry in order to estimate how many particles might be transferred to the food.

Based on the study, it was identified that the food contained 100 times the daily dietary allowance of zinc.

However, the potential long-term implications on human health remain unknown

Researchers are further planning to assess how an animal model responds to a similar ingestion of nanoparticles.