Consumer Food Technology Perceptions

July 02, 2010

Consumer support of food technology is strongest when considering benefits that resonate with consumers, such as environmental and sustainability benefits, according to a recent study by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

Consumer support of food technology is strongest when considering benefits that resonate with consumers, such as environmental and sustainability benefits, according to a recent study by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. The 14th annual IFIC Food Technology Consumer Survey, which interviewed 750 adults, tracked consumer trends in this area by examining familiarity with and perceptions towards food biotechnology, sustainability, and new and emerging technologies.

IFIC has conducted this survey for more than a decade, adding new questions as the field evolved. This year’s study shows that awareness of food biotechnology remains relatively stable compared to previous years, and it is not a top of mind concern for consumers. In fact, when asked about the safety of the food supply, seven in 10 consumers (69%) say they are somewhat or very confident.

Consumers responded most positively when considering the benefits of biotechnology in relation to the environment and sustainability. Seventy-seven percent of consumers said they would be likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology for their ability to reduce pesticide use; 80% would purchase bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, or pasta products containing wheat grown using plant biotechnology if they were produced sustainably to feed more people using fewer resources. While products containing wheat grown using biotechnology are still up to a decade away from being commercially available, this study indicates a potential market for such products if they are produced using sustainable practices.

Interest in sustainability in food production is on the rise, with half of consumers (50%) having heard or read at least “a little” about the concept in food production. This is a major shift compared to the 2008 findings, when only 41% had heard about sustainability, and the findings from 2007, when that number was as low as 30%. When asked to rank aspects of sustainable crop production in order of importance, consumers’ top three choices are sustainable methods that help grow more food on less land (69%), reduce the amount of pesticides needed to produce food (65%), and produce plants that use water more efficiently (62%).

Looking more closely at plants and animals, 32% of consumers are somewhat or very favorable toward the use of plant technology; 29% are somewhat or very favorable toward animal biotechnology. Those that cite an unfavorable or neutral attitude toward animal biotechnology also say they don’t have enough information or that they don’t understand the benefits. 

To this end, the study found that the explanation of technological benefits contributes to positive consumer awareness on the subject. For example, in terms of nanotechnology, a science that involves the design and application of structures, devices and systems on an extremely small scale, half of consumers were favorable toward the technology when given examples of potential benefits (i.e. safer food packaging and better nutrient profiles).

Overall health benefits also contributed toward improving consumer perceptions about food technology. The majority of consumers are somewhat or very likely to purchase produce modified by biotechnology in order to provide more healthful fats like omega-3s (76%), avoid trans fat (74%), or make them taste better/fresher (67%). 

Still, more education is needed to keep consumer awareness high and attitudes favorable toward biotechnology. Basic information regarding food technology can improve consumer awareness and comprehension, therefore leading to more informed and educated consumers. 

Retailers can help improve consumer awareness by providing science-based educational information and resources at the point of sale or at the front of the store for customers to take with them, and by offering a variety of products so consumers can make their own choices. Having knowledgeable staff or access to experts who can speak to the science and help reassure customers about food technology is one potential way to improve attitudes toward food technology. 

“There will likely be an increasing focus over the next few years on the growing global population and the need for increased food production by 2050, and all food production methods will be needed to help meet that demand,” says Lindsey Loving, Senior Director, Food Ingredient & Technology Communications, IFIC. “Food technology will very likely play a major role in meeting future food needs around the world.”

The International Food Information Council Foundation is dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good through established partnerships with a wide range of credible professional organizations, government agencies (including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion), and academic institutions. They do not lobby or further any political, partisan, or corporate interest. for more information.