Novel food technologies: Progress or hazard?

Few consumers perceive novel food technologies positively. Naturalness in food is key for many. The motivation to write the Nature Food review together with Christina Hartmann (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s43016-020-0094-x) was to better understand the lack of acceptance of novel food technologies.

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Food consumption has never been as safe as it is today. At the same time, consumers and even some scholars are concerned about the risks associated with the use of technology for food production.

People tend to be conservative regarding novel food. Honestly, both of us were initially somewhat disgusted to eat insects, even when they were processed and could not be recognized at the table. However, we can tell you that there is no need to be disgusted.

Conservatism in food choices can also be observed in regard to novel food technologies. Even if we accept novel foods and food processing, the traditional methods do not become obsolete. We could easily combine food prepared on the wood-fired grill with canned fruits, deep-frozen potatoes that are fried, and sous-vide vegetables. This mix of food technologies highlights the fact that new technologies, unlike in other domains (e.g., IT), have not replaced older ones but have been added, leading to more possibilities and options.

In many domains, technological progress is perceived positively. The food domain is different in this respect. Some novel food technologies encounter strong resistance from a considerable number of consumers, and the use of new food technologies is rarely a good marketing argument. Not surprisingly, the food industry emphasizes the naturalness of its products and rarely the fancy technology used to produce good-tasting foods.

Progress toward a more sustainable, more secure, and safer food chain is difficult to envisage without novel food technologies. Therefore, the general skepticism regarding technologies in the food domain will remain a challenge. In our literature review, we have presented factors that help explain why consumers often evaluate novel food technologies rather negatively.

It is not only consumers that show a negative bias towards novel food technologies. Even some experts blame food technologies in a very general and unbalanced way when they claim that ultra-processed food is a key factor in the obesity crisis. The condemnation of technology is problematic, in our view. Many societies should move toward a healthier and more sustainable diet, and food technologies should be part of such a trend instead of being perceived as barriers.

Go to the profile of Michael Siegrist

Michael Siegrist

Prof., ETH Zurich

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