Nanotechnology involves the engineering of functional systems from a molecular and atomic scale, with at least one characteristic dimension measured in nanometres (where one nanometre is 50,000th of a hair width).
Food application areas include lowering sugar, salt and fat levels with no taste loss, increasing nutrient or vitamin content or developing satiety-inducing foods.
In a new report, Matter noted that responsible development of new technologies with biotechnology and genomics applications was the new corporate social responsibility (CSR) focus for firms active in the food, energy, cosmetics, medicine and chemical sectors.
Director Hilary Sutcliffe, said: “Companies … are taking steps to learn the lessons of the past and consider the issues around the responsible development and use of these new technologies, particularly nanotechnologies.”
Positive social benefits
Problems with the introduction of past technologies including GM, nuclear power and food irradiation suggest that a “more accountable, responsible and transparent approach” was needed, Matter said.
Namely, in the development of products that have a “positive social benefit and are safe for humans, animals and the environment", it added.
Chris Woodcock, managing partner at communications consultancy College Hill said: “The simple rule is always to state the social benefit or aim first. For instance, population growth is forcing us to find new, sustainable and safe food sources.”
She added that the public needed to be treated as grown-ups, with “straight-talking and clear rationales…now much more acceptable”.
Reviewing 23 publications on various technologies such as nanotechnology, Matter concluded that the public was “excited but sceptical” about their potential.
The think tank said openness about the use of nano was a “no brainer”. There are at least 350 nano-based products available in Europe, some of which are listed in the US-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Nano Consumer Products Inventory, Matter noted.
But it claimed that the relevant company websites contained virtually no information about use of the technology.
‘Trivial’ application distrust
Beyond the “standard sales message”, firms should educate consumer to understand the benefits, social and environmental impact of such technology, Matter said, while government incentives to prompt disclosure, including regulation, were also needed.
“Where a technology is perceived as new and scary, much more detail is required on why and how this approach is necessary, its use and the research that goes into proving its efficacy, safety and superiority over existing solutions,” Matter said.
Choice was also crucial, Matter added, given increasing perceptions that technology is being forced on consumers or ‘smuggled into’ products, which could affect product acceptance and the technology as a whole.
Matter’s conclusions reflect those of a Soil Association report published in April. This reported Food Standards Agency (FSA) consumer survey views on nanotechnology, conducted between last November and February.
Participants valued benefits nanotechnology could offer people with, say, dietary concerns, or when it was used in packaging, the report authors found.
However, consumers were wary of “unnecessary or trival applications”, thought to be unduly risky on social and environmental grounds. These included products inducing people to feel fuller, or the creation of foods with new textures and flavours.