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Food companies go quiet on nanotech research activity

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 19-Jul-2010
Last updated on 19-Jul-2010 at 15:49 GMT

Many major food companies have become hesitant to promote their research into the potential of nanotechnology for fear of piquing consumer concerns while it is still in its infancy, according to an expert from market researcher Lux Research.

Nanotechnology refers to controlling matter at an atomic or molecular scale measured in nanometers, or millionths of millimeters. In the food industry, the technology could have a variety of uses including detecting bacteria in packaging, delivering nutrients in smaller doses but with better bioavailability, or producing stronger flavors and colorings.

Speaking at the IFT International Food Nanoscience Conference in Chicago on Saturday, Chananit Sintuu, a research associate with the market research organization Lux Research, said that many large food companies have quietly stopped issuing press releases to promote their ongoing research to the wider public - although it is still available and discussed within the scientific community.

Sintuu told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “Unilever and Nestle are doing research on texture enhancement for example, for things like ice cream. But they are worried about profitability.” According to Sintuu, one of the main concerns that may stop large companies from publicizing their investment in nanotechnology is its acceptance by consumers.

“Technology developers need to work with educators,” she said. “The knowledge gap needs to be filled.”
The organization’s figures show that back in 2008 - before global recession took hold - corporate investment accounted for 47 percent of the funding going into research and development projects for nanotechnology, more than government (46 percent) or venture capital, at seven percent.

Sintuu added that while some companies have stopped talking about their research so openly, there is concern that others may be put off investing in the field altogether.

Meanwhile, Kraft is one company to have taken a deliberate step away from the emerging technology, and claims to be taking more of a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. This is significant as Kraft was once considered a leader in the sector for its investigation into potential uses for the technology for the food industry.

Also speaking at the conference on Saturday, Kraft Foods Fellow Vijay Arora said: “We really needed to show what step changing benefits are there and available (through the use of nanotechnology). At the moment, the main interest is in food packaging.”

Kraft’s website holds a statement on nanotechnology, which says that the company is not currently using the technology but that its R&D teams “keep their eyes on the scientific research, as well as consider potential applications where nanotechnology may be used in packaging material.”

It goes on to say: “We would only consider those uses that meet regulatory requirements and are considered safe by the regulatory community. We also take into account what our consumers think and feel.” This is an issue that the industry is keen to tackle and to get right; if there is strong consumer backlash the (often expensive) research that has already been undertaken could be wasted.

At Saturday’s conference, many experts said that effectively demonstrating solid benefits for consumers would be crucial for the successful introduction of nanotechnology in a broader range of food products. However, the question of which benefits would be convincing enough to sway consumers remained open for debate.