Consumers have largely grown to accept nanotechnology in nutrition for packaging and, to a lesser extent, even the food itself. This is according to a study from ETH Zurich’s Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED).
In recent years, nanotechnology has joined gene and information technology in becoming a pinnacle of hope for research and industry. The fields of materials science, electronics, environmental and medicine are all looking to particles, most of which are smaller than 100 nanometers, effectively an 800th of a hair’s breadth, for all kinds innovation. The latest uses for nanotechnology include food products and their packaging.
What sounds like pure science fiction today may soon find its way onto our supermarket shelves: precooked lasagna, for example, where you can modify the color, taste and proportion of various nutrients by adjusting the heating period in the microwave. These kinds of products are called “individually modifiable foods” as they can be adjusted to suit individual requirements thanks to nanoparticles. Other potential uses for nanotechnology rest in the packaging, which increases the shelf life of the food and indicates when its content matter expires.
Nanoparticles, however, are considered as highly reactive and it is not yet clear whether under certain conditions they can get the better of protective mechanisms and have a toxic impact on the body. The Risk Dialogue (Risiko Dialog) St. Gallen Foundation has dedicated itself to the subject, the Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU) has adopted an action plan for potential hazards and the Research Institute for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) is also addressing nanotechnology and its risks in its research program. This begs the question as to how far consumers today would be willing to accept the risks associated with nano-modified food.
Benefits need to be apparent for acceptance
Michael Siegrist, Professor at the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich, set about probing this issue. In a representative study, he and his research team asked 337 randomly selected people from all over Switzerland about their risk perception for various kinds of food and packaging that benefit from the functions of the nanoparticles. “In the meantime, research and industry know a whole range of potential nanotech uses for food. However, still only very little is known about the risks of the technology and how the consumers perceive them”, explains Siegrist. By publishing the results of the study in the journal “Appetite”, however, he has bridged a gap in the knowledge of how well nanotechnology is accepted in the food sector.
The participants in the study had to evaluate 19 potential uses for nano-applications in comestibles and packaging in a questionnaire. These included the aforementioned “individually modifiable foods”, comestibles with cancer-preventive additives, a chemical salmonella detector, the nano-encapsulation of vitamins, healthy green tea and packaging that protects comestibles from UV light. The respondents had to evaluate the applications according to their own perception of the risks and particular use on a scale ranging from 1 (very low) to 5 (very high).
“The acceptance for the packaging was relatively high, while the nanotech food was evaluated considerably more critically”, explains Siegrist, summing up one of the main results. The risk researcher also finds it interesting that the possible diffusion of nanoparticles from the packaging into the product was not perceived as a threat, despite the fact that critics have used this particular hazard time and again as an argument against nanotechnology.
The study furthermore revealed that acceptance essentially depends on the recognition of a direct use in the product. According to Siegrist, the respondents were more willing to accept risks in the case of the additives for the cancer prophylaxis than for uses that are “merely” healthy. As the use of nanotechnology in food is often not self-explanatory, it is paramount that it be communicated to the consumer early enough. As far as Siegrist is concerned, communication is doubly important as it is the only way to guarantee the consumers’ confidence in nano science and industry. He believes that synchronizing the expectations of the consumer and the interests of industry from the outset could avoid a conflict of interest as, for example, is very much the case in gene technology. “We should learn from our mistakes and provide the necessary explanations for acceptance at an early stage”, says Siegrist, explaining the motivation behind his study.
“We cannot afford to ignore fears and expectations, even at this early stage”
Although Siegrist avoided technical questions in the questionnaire, he is confident that the bulk of the population’s standard of knowledge as far as the risks and opportunities of nanotechnology are concerned is still extremely low. After all, a public dialogue on the subject is still greatly lacking. Equally as low was the response to the questionnaires sent out – only 28 percent of those who received one showed an interest in the survey, the majority of which had a high level of education. This led to a slight distortion of the results. However, Siegrist could not detect any socio-demographic differences like age or gender in the evaluation of the results.
Siegrist believes that the topic of nanotechnology will become increasingly topical in years to come, particularly in the food sector: “We would be well-advised to address the fears and wishes of the consumers today. Otherwise, we’ll soon find ourselves contending with deep-set points of view, as is now the case in the debate surrounding gene technology”.
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