Nanotechnology is increasingly applied to food and food contact materials. While consumer rejection of some food applications was widely discussed, little research has addressed factors influencing consumer acceptance of new technologies in the food sector. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Food Science & Technology reviewed the literature to determine which factors influence consumer acceptance of nanotechnologies (Frewer et al. 2014). Based on the reviewed literature, Frewer and colleagues argue that risk benefit perceptions rather than risk perceptions alone determine the acceptance of different applications. The societal context in which these applications are embedded thus plays a role. The researchers report that many consumers remain ambivalent towards nanotechnologies. This ambivalence may be due to the limited amount of products available or unresolved social issues associated with nanotechnology. Research shows that ambivalence is perceived as unpleasant by consumers, who may thus easily shift their attitudes to one side or the other. High profile media events are reported as influential in shaping opinions regarding nanotechnologies. Other influencing factors identified by the authors include attitudes towards already existing technologies, perceived benefits, religious beliefs and moral concerns, trust in industry and governmental institutions. Frewer and colleagues further report that, relative to expert predictions, consumers place more importance on ethical concerns, rather than potential physical contact with food. Ethical considerations influencing consumer attitudes include beneficence, non-malfeasance, justice and autonomy.
Food-related applications of nanotechnology do likely raise societal concern in contrast to medical advances, which are perceived to have future benefits. Frewer and colleagues suggest that nanotechnology applied to food may be better perceived in countries with a greater perceived food scarcity, and report application on packaging to be preferred over the application on food. However this was only observed to be the case in Germany, whereas French consumers were more concerned over food packaging.
In conclusion, the researchers state that societal negativity has not yet developed at this point and that technological innovation applied to food is not per se societally unacceptable. They hypothesize that lessons learned from the rejection of genetically modified foods have been implemented by industry and regulators, resulting in a better consumer acceptance of nanotechnology compared to GM foods. The authors suggest using information on societal preferences to “fine-tune” the final delivery of nano-applications to the consumer. Regulatory strategies aiming to promote nano-applications, they argue, should explicitly address public engagement and consultation outputs as well as ethical issues and concerns.
Frewer, LJ et al. (2014). “Consumer attitudes towards nanotechnologies applied to food production.” Trends in Food Science & Technology.