Consumer attitudes towards food nanotechnology

A matter of (psychological) distance?

Nanotechnology depends on manipulation of matter on a really, really small scale, which allows creation of materials with properties not found elsewhere. Besides high tech, science fiction type applications (such as nanorobots) there are also more daily-use consumer nanotechnology products. Many of those are already produced and are listed in an online database.

Nanotechnology has many promises for food. Nanotech can be used in anti-bacterial coatings and contaminant removal during production. Nanotechnology can be used to create packaging that keeps products fresh for longer, has lower weight and has less impact on the environment. Nanotechnology can be in foods themselves to mask bad flavours, detect pathogens and deliver extra nutrients.

Food industry does depend on a positive consumer response to nanotechnology used food products and productions. In our study, we randomly assigned participants to one of four conditions in which they had to evaluate a bottle of  orange juice. One group of participants evaluated conventional orange juice as part of the control group. The other groups evaluated orange juice with either added nanotechnology nutrients, a nanotechnology enhanced package, or orange juice produced using nanotechnology.

We showed that if the nanotechnology was in the product itself, consumers perceived more risks than when it was in the package, and when nanotechnology was in the package consumers perceived more risk than when it was used during production. In other words, the closer nanotechnology came to consumption, the higher the perceived risks. The perceived benefits were not influenced by how close the nanotechnology came to consumption. Hence the lower acceptance of nanotechnology in the food itself appears mainly an effect of increasing risk perception.

This idea that closeness matters is based on the construal-level theory of psychological distance. Construal level theory posits that differences in “distances” of objects influence how direct the consumer experience of that object is. Nanotechnology inside the food itself: nano-encapsulated nutrients, has a very low distance. It is “invasive” and will be consumed. Therefore in this case, the nanotechnology is a direct consumer experience. Nanopackaging that only touches the food is more distant from the user, and nanotechnology used during production is even further away. The technical reason to bring nanotechnology closer to the consumer is to bring the benefits also closer to the consumer. Our research shows that consumers do not see it that way. Instead our research shows that bringing nanotechnology closer does increase perceptions of risk, but does not influence perceptions of benefit.

In spite of the increasing risk perception for closer applications, none of the applications of nanotechnology caused immediate rejection of the product as a whole. The presence of nanotechnology also did not relevantly alter consumer perceptions of other product attributes such as quality and healthiness.

It appears that nano-applications that remain further away from consumers will run into the fewest issues as risk perceptions are lowest. Yet on the whole perceived benefits of nanotechnology were more important than risks in respondents’ evaluations of the product. This suggests a lot of effort should be invested in creating products that give tangible benefits for end-users if they are to be market viable. It also suggests that nanotechnology compares positively to other technologies in food, such as genetic modification, where risk perceptions where high and dominant in the public view.

Read the full paper: Steenis , N.D., and Fischer , A.R.H. (2016) Consumer attitudes towards nanotechnology in food products: an attribute-based analysis, British Food Journal, 118 (5), 1254 – 1267

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