Nearly three-quarters of US consumers have little or no knowledge of nanotechnology, and so would refrain from buying food products developed using the science, according to a new report.
Nanotechnology is championed by several manufacturers for use in packaging to extend shelf life, or more controversally, for improving the nutritional content and impact of foods.
The survey by the Woodrow Wilson International Center indicates that the food sector and regulators need to be more proactive in informing the public about the science, especially as consumers are worried about the potential health and environmental effects.
According to the Woodrow Wilson International Center only six percent of Americans say they have "heard a lot" about nanotechnology, while a massive 70 percent say they have only heard a little or nothing at all.
"Even though the number of nanotechnology-enabled consumer products - from dietary supplements to skin products to electronic devices - has more than doubled to over 500 products since last year, the 'needle' on public awareness of nanotechology remains stuck at disappointingly low levels," said David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
What is even more discouraging is that the percentage of people who say they have heard about nanotechnology has actually fallen four percent from last year.
"Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area," Rejeski explained.
This lack of knowledge means that the majority of US consumers are wary of buying any products that are associated with nanotechonology.
Only seven percent of Americans said they would buy nanotechnology-enhanced food products, while 12 per cent said they would buy nanotech food packaging.
However, these figures jumped considerably amongst adults who said they were confident they understood nanotechnology, with 31 per cent saying they would buy nanotech food products.
"As in previous polls, the results of this survey indicate that public wants more information about nanotechnology," Rejeski said. "Most Americans will be reluctant to use nano food and food-related products until they know enough to evaluate the merits of these products."
According to Rejeski, this lack of general understanding means that there is no leeway for any food safety problems in the nanotechnology industry.
"The slightest bump - even a false alarm about safety or health - could undermine public confidence, engender consumer mistrust, and, as a result, damage the future of nanotechnology, before the most exciting applications are realized," he said. "If they do not effectively engage a broad swath of the public in steering the course of nanotechnology, government and industry risk squandering a tremendous opportunity."
Opinion on nanotechnology remains hotly divided in the food industry, which uses it in a variety of applications, particularly for improving the quality of packaging materials.
Last year sales of nanotechnology-related products reached almost $1bn (€744m), jumping from $150m (€112m) in 2002. Three years ago less than 40 nanopackaging products were on the market, compared to over 400 available at present.
Consultant Helmut Kaiser estimates that nanotechnology will change 25 per cent of the food packaging market, currently worth $100bn (€74bn).
However, not everyone is quite so enthusiastic, and earlier this year the Woodrow Wilson Center released a report saying that more nanotechnology regulations are needed as its possible effects on human health and the environment are still unknown.
The EU is also wary of how nanotechnology is used in the food industry, and last month the EC's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) said that new risk assessment methods are needed because chemicals in their nanoparticle form have potentially very different properties than their larger physical forms.
According to the SCENIHR , nanoparticles may move inside the body, reaching the blood and organs such as the liver or the heart, and may also cross cell membranes . These particles may then lead to lung inflammation and heart problems.
Nanotechnology is a relatively new science involving the manipulation of materials at near atomic scales, and about how it might be used in the food chain.