Food nanotechnology and public acceptance

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Having written in this space about the (possibly) good and the (possibly) bad of food nanotechnology before, here is now a scientific approach to assessing how the public perceives nanotechnology in food and food packaging. Swiss social psychologist Michael Siegrist has looked into the issues of trust, risk and the public acceptance of nanotechnology before. Now, he and his colleagues have taken the area of nanofoods and tried to understand what factors influence the willingness to buy food that has been produced, processed or packaged with nanotechnology. Their conclusion: Perceived benefits seems to be the most important predictor for willingness to buy.
"Our study was a first attempt to examine public reactions toward nanotechnology foods" Siegrist explains to Nanowerk. "More research is necessary to better understand the willingness to buy such new food products. An important factor that we came across, and that should be included in future studies, is perceived naturalness."
Previous findings from research on genetically modified foods ("Societal aspects of genetically modified (GM) foods") indicate that nanotechnology foods with tangible benefits for the consumer will be easier to market than nanotechnology foods without obvious consumer benefits. But even novel foods that have clear health benefits may not be appealing to all consumers.
"It seems that the introduction of novel nanotechnology foods is unlikely to result, generally, in more positive attitudes toward nanotechnology food" says Siegrist. "It is more likely that, for some products, nanotechnology food is accepted, but not for other products."
For their study, the Swiss researchers constructed a sample of 153 people who are responsible for grocery shopping in their household . The participants had a mean age of 38 years and their education level was above average compared to the Swiss population. One limitation of the study obviously was that it examined the willingness to buy and not the actual buying behavior. (Previous, similar studies on GM foods showed a difference in what people said they were willing to do and what they actually did.)
Participants were given basic descriptions of potential food nanotechnology applications in bread, tomatoes, juice and packaging before being asked a series of questions. A sample description:
A nanotechnology coating protects tomatoes from humidity and oxygen. Coated tomatoes have a longer shelf life. Another advantage is that tomatoes can be harvested when they are ripe, resulting in more tasty tomatoes. Disadvantages include the uncertainty of experts about the effects of this material on human health and the environment.
"Our results suggest that nanotechnology packaging is perceived as being substantially more beneficial than nanotechnology foods" says Siegrist. " These results also support our hypothesis that nanoinside (e.g., foods) is perceived as less acceptable than nanooutside (e.g., packaging)." It should also be noted that participants were generally hesitant to buy nanotechnology foods or food with nanotechnology packaging. Results suggest, therefore, that the benefits associated with many upcoming nanotechnology food applications may not provide enough additional value for consumers to induce them to buy these products."
This of course would assume that nanofoods are labelled as such; something that is not required under current regulations. If a food manufacturer decides not to tout the nanotechnology aspects of their food product it would be very difficult for the consumer to find out. Given that almost all of the large food conglomerates are working on nanotechnology R&D but have gone very quiet on it publicly (when you search for the term 'nano' or nanotechnology' on the websites of Kraft, Nestle, Heinz and Altria you get exactly zero results) this seems a realistic scenario.
Siegrist's findings are in line with recent studies suggesting that benefit alone does not guarantee acceptance. In one of these studies, participants showed a low intention to consume GM food, even though clear benefits to the consumer had been communicated.
Siegrist emphasizes that consumers are not a homogenous group; they differ in what they perceive as benefits. "In sum, perceived benefits have an impact on how nanotechnology foods are assessed. However, the acceptance of nanotechnology foods cannot be reduced to perceived benefits."
Rather than just the product itself, it seems that social trust in institutions producing nanotechnology foods is an important factor directly influencing the willingness to buy. The importance of trust for the perception of nanotechnology foods consequently raises the question of how trust is created.
"We have shown previously that shared values constitute the foundations of trust" says Siegrist. "If an institution?s behavior is judged to reflect a person?s values, the institution will be seen as trustworthy. The importance of social trust suggests that an event with significant negative consequences could have a disastrous impact on trust in the industry. Acceptance of nanotechnology foods could be substantially reduced. The industry should, therefore, promote voluntary initiatives and regulations designed to prevent unwanted side effects."
In conclusion, Siegrist mentions a recent study that suggests that the more a product is seen as natural, the less acceptable will be a genetically engineered version of that product. "Perceived naturalness or lack of naturalness could be a factor that also influences attitudes toward nanotechnology foods" he says.
Siegrist's recent study, "Public acceptance of nanotechnology foods and food packaging: The influence of affect and trust", was published in the March 14, 2007 online issue of Appetite.
Bon appétit!
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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