Consumers in the United Kingdom have spoken, revealing their views on nanotechnology in foods. The verdict? Healthy skepticism. Or rather, a skepticism of nanoparticles that do anything besides improve health.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) Thursday published a study on attitudes of UK residents towards the use of nanotechnology in food products and food packaging.

The FSA study surveyed 120 people from 6 different areas of the United Kingdom. Participants were given information about how nanotechnology can be applied to food and packaging and asked to discuss their reactions.

Nanoparticles and Food: The Quick Breakdown

Nanoparticles are currently being introduced at different stages of food processing for a variety of purposes. These tiny particles (100,000 nanometers stretch the width of a piece of paper) carry different properties than the larger material from which they are made. When introduced to food, they can cause significant changes, such as making a traditionally fatty food low-fat, reducing salt or sugar content, or enhancing a flavor to make it more powerful.

If incorporated into food packaging, nanoparticles can have the ability to sensor foods to determine when they are no longer safe to eat, and alert the consumer by changing color. They could also extend a product’s shelf life.

Despite its purported benefits, however, nanotechnology has raised concerns among scientists over potential health risks. Some nanoparticles, while harmless in their larger form, are thought to be toxic to humans in their smaller state, as they can breach cell walls more easily.

Study Results

The UK researchers noted that three main areas of concern arose among survey participants with regards to nanotechnology in foods, including:

-Whether or not nanotechnology is a necessary development

-Who nanotechnology will benefit more: the producer or the consumer, and

-Whether the potential benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the risks

When given examples of different ways nanotechnology can be applied to food, people were more enthusiastic about uses that enhance nutrition. They were excited about using nanoparticles to make traditionally unhealthy foods “lite.”

On the other hand, they generally disagreed with using nanoparticles to enhance a food’s taste or color.

“Unnecessary or ‘trivial,’ applications were not felt to be worth risking the possible downsides associated with food technology, such as potential health risks and wider impacts on society and the environment,” the study reports.

Participants were significantly more receptive to nanotechnologies that could be applied to food packaging, which were “seen as valuable methods of reducing unnecessary waste, saving consumers money, and relieving pressures on landfill and food production,” according to the study.

Aside from reacting to nanoparticle applications, consumers also expressed an overall desire for more information on nanoparticles and their use in food.

“This research suggests that although consumers may be skeptical about the motives behind the introduction of nanotechnology in food, they are more likely to look more favourably on its use when they perceive a real benefit to them,” said Andrew Wage, Chief Scientist at FSA. “I believe it’s for regulators and the industry to be transparent and to work together to explain to people what nanotechnology is and how it can be used in food,” he said.

Consumers participating in the study noted that they would like to see an independent registry of all nanoparticles being used in the UK in food or packaging.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies provides this type of database for the United States.

Steps are currently being taken in the U.S. and Europe to assess the real risks associated with nanoparticles and food.

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the UK’s Food Standards Agency have called for extensive testing on the effects of nanoparticles on the human system.

In 2006, the FDA formed a task force charged with examining existing evidence on the biological affects of nanotechnology in order to make recommendations for overseeing the use of nanoparticles in food and drugs.

And while the impact of nanoparticles in food is still not fully understood, research on the subject is in full swing.

For more information on nanotechnology in food, visit FDA’s page on the topic.