Consumers have fewer concerns over packaging using nanoparticles than food utilizing the same technology, according to new study.
The goal of the study from ETH Zurich's Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED), which was published in the journal Appetite, was to identify which food applications are more likely to be accepted by the public and which ones less likely.
The researchers argue that it is important to take public views of nanotechnology into account at its early stage of development to avoid some of the problems that genetically modified (GM) technology has been faced with.
They claim that their findings can help identify the food applications for which future public debates on nanotechnology could focus on.
Nanotechnology, which uses tiny particles measuring one billionth of a metre, is already used for various applications in areas such as food supplements, functional food ingredients and in food packaging but the number of these products is still low.
Nanotechnology may prevent the invasion of micro-organism or be used to produce packages with stronger mechanical and thermal performance, and nano-sensors could be embedded in the packaging to alert consumers if a food product is no longer safe to eat.
Other uses under investigation include processing such as programming of foods to release flavour at a particular time, or nutrients in a certain part of the body where they can have an effect.
Estimates of the future market for nanotechnology range from €750bn to €2,000bn by 2015 according to the European Commission, with predictions for the number of new jobs created by the industry standing at around 10 million.
However, the technology has suffered from a lack of public understanding and consumer concerns over the safety of some of its applications.
The researchers said that a questionnaire and an accompanying letter were sent to a random sample of addresses from the telephone book in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.
Households were contacted three times but the response rate was 28 per cent, said the researchers, with the final number of respondents totalling 337 people.
However, the researchers claim that the study is still valid in view of the fact that participants were asked to answer a long and complicated questionnaire.
Existing and potential applications were briefly described in the documentation and participants were asked to assess various risk dimensions and benefits associated with applications such as a chemical salmonella detector and packaging that protects comestibles from UV light, states the article.
The researchers concluded that individually modifiable foods and health-promoting feed received the highest risk ratings, while applications related to better food safety received the highest benefit ratings.
Nanotechnology packaging is viewed as less problematic in the public view, said the team, and consumers may be more likely to accept innovations related to packaging than those related to foods.
The findings showed that respondents for whom naturalness of food products was important perceived fewer benefits associated with nanotechnology applications compared with respondents for whom naturalness was not an issue, according to the article.
They said that consumers may be reluctant to buy drinks or foods in which flavors, food colors or nutrients are released according to the wavelength chosen when warmed in the microwave.
The researchers also found that older respondents perceived packaging applications as significantly more beneficial than younger respondents.
Source: Appetite Vol 51 Issue 2 September 2008 pages 283-90
Published online ahead of print
"Perceived Risks and perceived benefits of different nanotechnology foods and nanotechnology food packaging"
Authors: M. Siegrist, N. Stampfli, H. Kastenholz, C.Keller