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Overseas consumers and retailers assess nanotech food films

Recent qualitative research from professors in Denmark indicates that consumers in four European countries and China misunderstand some benefits of active, nanotechnology-based food packaging but have no problem with nanotech per se. The researchers also find that retailers were primarily concerned about the packaging’s performance and its compatibility with their business.

Polymeros Chrysochou and Alexandra Festila, associate professor and assistant professor, respectively, at Denmark’s Aarhus University, conducted the research as part of the NanoPack project. NanoPack, a three-year initiative that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, is developing antimicrobial active packaging with the goal of increasing food safety and reducing food waste.

Nanotech researchers (left to right) Alexandra Festila, assistant professor, and Polymeros Chrysochou, associate professor.

The researchers conducted 10 consumer focus groups and 10 interviews with retail managers in Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Spain and China to evaluate participants’ perception of the NanoPack active-packaging technology and its benefits.

A key finding from the research is that the benefits of active packaging may be confusing for consumers. For example, a package’s ability to provide both freshness and extended shelf life seemed contradictory to some focus group participants.

According to a report by the researchers, “Freshness is a rather vague promised benefit and people have different interpretations of it. They may perceive in terms of the time passed from the production, where a shorter time equates [to] a fresher food product.” In other words, consumers don’t necessarily view an extended-shelf-life product as fresh.

The researchers also find that consumers were unfazed by the nano component of NanoPack’s packaging film, which incorporates halloysite nanotubes (HNTs). The HNTs encapsulate antimicrobial molecules from plant-based essential oils, and the film gradually releases the molecules as vapor into the package.

“In the case of the NanoPack technology, consumers were not concerned with the ‘nanotechnology’ aspect,” the researchers write. “They were more concerned with the ‘essential oils’ aspect and the ‘active’ nature of this technology.”

Specifically, the focus group consumers tended to perceive food packed in the HNT film as more natural, because the film incorporates natural essential oils. At the same time, participants were concerned that the active release of vapor into the package would contaminate or alter the food inside.

Retailer reaction

The researchers’ in-depth interviews with retail managers reveal that retailers’ primary requirement for emerging packaging technologies is food safety. Secondarily, retailers want packaging that fits with their strategies and internal processes, including transportation/storage and recyclability.

Technology assurances, such as proof of effectiveness and certifications, are also important to retailers. Finally, this cohort wants packaging technology that “guarantees that the product will maintain its quality…and sensorial properties,” as well as its safety, the researchers report.

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