Foods produced using emerging nanotechnology are less likely to come up against consumer hurdles than genetically modified foods since they do not involve tinkering with genes, and therefore have a greater perception of naturalness, says a new paper.
The paper, to be published in the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology, sets out to assess the factors that affect public acceptance of innovative technologies and food products by reviewing existing literature on the subject.
Alongside the balance between perceived risks and perceived benefits, Michael Siegrist of the Institute for Environmental Decisions' Consumer Behaviour unit in Zurich, Switzerland, said that the perception of naturalness is all-important to the modern consumer, and drew upon a body of research suggesting that almost all the associations evoked by the work 'natural' were positive.
However the actual processes involved in making the food are seen as all-important for whether or not a food is deemed natural. For example, chemical transformations such as the addition of fat were seen to reduce the naturalness of a product, whereas physical transformations like grinding were not.
The biggest reduction in naturalness came form inserting a gene from one species into another - whereas domestication of plants or animals on the basis of selection did not appear to pose an acceptance issue.
"This reasoning suggests that consumers may be more willing to accept nanotechnology food than GM food," wrote Siegrist. "Since the former most likely will not be perceived as tampering with nature, few people will have a moral impetus to oppose this technology now."
In broad terms, nanotechnology is said to refer to an atomic or molecular scale of between one and 100 nanometres (nm).
At present the main uses for foods are said to be in food packaging and barrier materials, with some applications in nutraceutical delivery. 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.
At a recent debate hosted by the European Food Safety Authority, which has been charged with conducting a risk assessment of nanotechnology in foods, Dr Frans Kampers, programme manager bio-nanotechnology at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, pointed out, most nanoparticles in food are actually of natural origin.
This beggars the question as to whether there is a food that isn't nano - and indeed, whether nanotechnology should be deemed existing or new.
The author of the new paper also drew on the example of organic food as being a way in which food technologies can be framed in ways that enhance acceptance.
Organic food is promoted as being more natural than conventional foods, and these positive attributed lead to the people buying them in the belief that they are tastier and better for their health.
Such a marketing approach also allows for a premium being charged for organic foods, which could also be extended to other production technologies if marketed in the right way.
In conclusion, however, the researchers note that it is not just the nature of the innovation that determines whether or not it will be accepted, but the social, environmental and political context.
"Social amplification processes may generate public concern about hazards that are judged as low risks by experts," wrote Siegrist, giving the perception of GM foods in various European countries as a particular example.
"There are presently no indications that such an amplification process must be expected in the domain of nanotechnology food."
However the author also highlighted the importance of trust in the food industry for foods to be accepted.
He said that the underlying technology is less important when the end product is highly beneficial and meets consumers' needs, but they become sceptical when it is not seen to bring any additional value to them or to society, but just to line the pockets of producers and the food industry.
"The public may not be convinced that the values of the food industry are the same as theirs. Therefore, a lack of trust may hamper efforts to inform the public about the benefits of new technologies."
Dr Kampers applied the same logic to nanotechnology at the EFSA event. He said he is convinced nanotechnology will bring big benefits to individuals and mankind as a whole - but much depends on the perceived risks.
Trends in Food Science and Technology
Title: "Factors influencing public acceptance of innovative food technologies and products"
Author: Michael Siegrist