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Survey taps into consumer nano fears

By Ahmed ElAmin , 07-Dec-2006

US consumers are willing to use specific nanotechnology products - even if there are health and safety risks - when the potential benefits are high, according to a survey.

The study, done by researchers at Rice University, finds that US consumers rate nanotechnology as less risky than everyday technologies like herbicides, chemical disinfectants, handguns and food preservatives.These finding could have positive implications for dietary supplement manufacturers exploring, or considering exploring, nanotechnology and its potential benefits in areas such as solubility or bioavailability.

The researchers, who also include those at the University College London and the London Business School, say the survey is the largest, most comprehensive survey of public perceptions of nanotechnology products in the US.

 

It is part of a scientific movement worldwide to gauge public perception of nanotechnology. Like other scientists, the researchers urge governments and industry to thread carefully when introducting products that use the technology.

 

Nanotechnology, which deals with controlling matter at near-atomic scales to produce unique orenhanced materials, products and devices, has been touted as the next revolution in many industries,including food manufacturing and packaging. Yet the public's concerns have been raised that nanostructured materials could potentially lead to unforeseen health or environmental hazards.

 

In the food area fears arise over the unknown consequences of digesting nano-scale particlesdesigned to behave in specific way in the body.

 

Lead researcher Steven Currall, says some estimates conclude that products containing nanotechnology already account forabout $30 billion in annual global sales. He notes that there is concern that the public's fixation with nanotechnology's risks - either real or imaged - willdiminish their appetite for such products.

 

"Measuring public sentiment toward nanotechnology lets us both check the pulse of the industry right now,and chart the growth or erosion of public acceptance in the future," he said.

 

The research was based on about 5,500 survey responses. One survey polled consumers about how likely they would be to use fourspecific, nano-containing products: a drug, skin lotion, automobile tires and refrigerator gas coolant.

 

"It was clear that people were thinking about more than risk," Currall said. "Theaverage consumer is pretty shrewd when it comes to balancing risks against benefits, and we found that the greater the potential benefits, the morerisks people are willing to tolerate."

 

Study co-author Neal Lane said the public is likely to become more aware of nanotechnology's risks as environmental health and safetyresearch is completed and as nanomaterials find their way into more products.

 

What remains to be seen is whether the public's budding perceptions of the benefits of nanotechnology will also grow, he said.

 

"We propose that academic bodies like the UK's Royal Society and the US's National Academies set up interagency clearinghouses to coordinate publiceducation and synthesize the latest scientific findings," said Lane. "Transmitting the latest information about both risks and benefits, in atimely, thorough and transparent way, will minimize the likelihood of a polarized public debate that turns on rumor and supposition."

 

The results of the Rice University survey appear in the December issue of Nature Nanotechnologyjournal.

 

Last year the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trustslaunched the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to track developments in the field.

 

This year the project launched on online nanotechnology consumer products inventory at http://www.nanotechproject.org/consumerproducts.Today Nanoshop.com launched a separate nanotechnology product directory. The directory lists eightproducts in the food supplements category.

 

So far nanotechnology has made minor inroads in the food and drink industry. However foodcompanies see great opportunity in the technology as a means of introducing innovative products tothe market.

 

Nanoscale technology also offers new opportunities for the packaging industries, and variouspotential food contact applications have been suggested, including improved barrier properties,better temperature performance, thinner films for flexible packaging, and nanoscale pigments forinks.

 

Nanotechnology refers to the application of properties materials have at the atomic, molecularand macromolecular scale. A human hair is 80,000

 

nanometres (nm) wide, a red blood cell 7,000 nm wide, and a water molecule 0.3 nm wide.

 

The four major areas in food production that may benefit from nanotechnology development aremicroscale and nanoscale processing, product development, and methods and instrumentation design forimproved safety and biosecurity, according to scientists in an article published in the Journal ofFood Science earlier this year.

 

This week Lux Research reported that out of 171 venture-backed nanotech start-ups funded since 1995, 18 have reached a successful exit through aninitial public offering or acquisition as money continues to flow to the sector.

 

Based on deals completed through September, the research firm estimates that venturecapital investments in nanotech start-ups will reach $650 million in 2006. The average deal to date in 2006 comes to $11.5 million,19 per cent higher than 2005's $9.6 million.

 

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