Navigating how consumers perceive 'natural'

by Donna Berry
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Natural food
Manufacturers and ingredient suppliers are developing products that meet the consumer’s expectations of natural.
 

CHICAGO — A consumer sees an apple and may consider it a “natural” snack. That apple gets crushed, maybe mixed with a little sugar and cinnamon. The consumer may think “natural” applesauce. Apples get sliced and mixed with brown sugar and corn starch then distributed across a flour and butter crust to make a “natural” apple pie.

All of these thought processes make logical sense; however, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently does not define the term natural, its use is being scrutinized, and at times being challenged by consumer groups who claim misuse and deceit. In early May, for example, Plymouth, Wis.-based Sargento Foods Inc. was hit with a class-action lawsuit in San Francisco federal court accusing the company of marketing its cheeses as natural when, according to the plaintiff, they come from cows fed genetically modified corn or soy and growth-enhancing hormones. The lawsuit said thousands of consumers paid a premium price for what they believed were natural cheeses without receiving the benefits of a natural product. (See story on Page 48.)

Those benefits — real or perceived — are valued by many consumers. Research from Beneo Inc., Parsippany, N.J., showed that 65% of consumers in the Americas consider natural products as better and 47% actively look for natural products when making food purchase decisions.

“While the trend toward natural seems to have begun with a relatively small group of health-conscious consumers, the trend has now become widespread and includes consumers of all ages,” said Jon Peters, president of Beneo. 

Carolyn Clark, director of global marketing, PureCircle, Oak Brook, Ill., said, “As health experts and governments have become increasingly concerned about increases in obesity and diabetes, consumers are also on their own health and wellness journey. More than ever, consumers want to understand the type of ingredients in their food and the role that they play in their personal health and wellness.”

The ambiguity in the term natural, however, has food and beverage manufacturers questioning their investment in “cleaning up food labels” to appeal to today’s label-reading consumers. Can they afford the time and energy involved in reformulating, developing new labels and regulatory compliance?

“With consumer trends moving in the direction of a desire to purchase more natural, cleaner label, shorter ingredient statement products, the greater question is if you can afford not to,” said Christiana Greene, technical director, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, Calif. “Consumer spending is increasing in these areas, and without creating products that meet the demands, the cost companies can’t afford is lost sales revenue.”

David Hart, business unit director, Salt of the Earth, Atlit, Israel, believes that the guidelines for natural are clear enough.

“There can’t be any synthetic chemicals,” he said. “Ingredients need to be minimally processed, using a handful of accepted methods. Food companies should thoroughly vet all of their ingredients before making any claims around natural.”

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