But benefits must be clearly demonstrated, say experts
The jury is out on whether nanotechnology in food products is a good thing. Even the scientists don't seem to be sure — the European Food Safety Authority said recently that "a lack of validated test methodologies could make risk assessment of specific nano products very difficult."
Nanotechnology offers great promise to the functional-products sector. Tiny particles able to penetrate biological systems offer the promise of fast delivery of actives to the body in a highly effective and available manner.
But there is little regulation of its use — there are no labelling requirements, for example — and this is starting to stir up resentment. Earlier this year, in the US, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies published a critical report on nanotechnology in the supplements sector, in which the organisation argued that consumers were "potentially exposed to unknown risks" by its use.
Now some independent experts are warning that it could be just a matter of time before this kind of scepticism begins to seep through to the public consciousness. The worst-case scenario, they warn, is that nanotechnology will become another GM — in the sense that many consumers, particularly in Europe, have a strong aversion to genetically modified foods on safety grounds, and as a result avoid them altogether.
The good news for the industry, however, is that public opinion of nanotechnology appears not yet to be fully formed, and that there is still time to influence it.
Lynn Frewer, professor in food safety and consumer behaviour at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, is undertaking extensive research into consumer attitudes to the science. She has found that views on nanotechnology are generally "very weak," in the sense that people are not fully aware of it, but also "slightly negative." To put that into perspective, the research shows views on GM food are by comparison "very strong" and "very negative."
Furthermore, while the research indicates views on GM are difficult to change, those regarding nanotechnology are more malleable. "If you provide people with information they react accordingly," said Frewer. "So if you give them a lot of negative information their attitude becomes more negative; a lot of positive, it tends to become more positive."
Kathy Groves, project leader of UK-based research organisation Leather Food International's NanoWatch working group, said it is vital to ensure consumers understand how nanotechnology could benefit them — something the pro-GM lobby failed to do.
"When it is explained to them what nanotechnology can be used for, consumers can see the benefits," she said. "The argument in the GM debate was always that there was no clear benefit for the consumer."
Jennifer Kuzma, associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Centre for Emerging Nanotechnology, believes that with little regulation to control the use of nanotechnology in food, businesses need to be more open to ensure the public has confidence in the science.
"There's a lack of transparency on the part of the industry," she said. "They don't share, at an early stage, details of the kind of products they're working on. Nor do they share the kind of safety studies they are doing. It's probably to protect their intellectual property."
What does the industry think? Douglas MacKay, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said:?"As far as we are aware, there are no specific safety issues associated with the use of nanotechnology."
But he conceded: "The industry should continue to look and evaluate safety and efficacy of nano-ingredients when there is evidence that changes to the particle size significantly alter the pharmacokinetics and potency."