The majority of UK consumers have no idea what nanotechnologies are, according to research out today (20 December)

The consumer watchdog body Which? believes six out of ten people (61%) have never heard of nanotechnology - which uses materials on a tiny scale - and over a third of those who have (36%) aren't aware that nanotechnologies are being used to develop consumer products, including food supplements.

"Nanotechnologies have been used in some consumer products - such as computers and other electronic goods - for some time without raising concerns. However, the use of free nanoparticles in an increasing range of everyday products means that it isn't just consumers who are unsure about some uses of nanotechnologies," Which? said.

"The government is unclear about exactly what developments are taking place and top scientists, including government advisers, are calling for more research into the potential health and environmental risks posed by some free nanoparticles."

Which? chief policy adviser Sue Davies said: "The benefits that nanotechnologies can offer consumers are really exciting. But before the market is flooded with products, it's crucial the government addresses the lack of scientific understanding about how some nanoparticles behave and makes sure that there are meaningful controls in place.

"Our research shows a real lack of public awareness of nanotechnologies, despite government commitments to engage the public over this new technology. The Government needs to get to grips with how this technology is being used, understand its implications and involve the public in decisions about its future direction."

Last month the food regulation specialist EAS said the growing use of nanotechnology in food applications will pose new challenges for food scientists and regulators in Europe.

Stefanie Geiser, nutritional product regulatory affairs manager at EAS-Italy, said that as the nanotechnology market grows, regulators and scientists are working to find regulatory and risk assessment models to embrace research and safety aspects.
 
The first nano-food contact material, a silicon dioxide coating, has already been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) this year, and a second is under review.