What’s Next for ‘Natural’?

by Theresa Cogswell
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Many consumers may not realize, unlike those of us in the baking industry, the word “natural” has not been defined and is likely not to be defined by the Food and Drug Administration anytime soon.

For those who might think questions about the use of the word are fairly new on the scene … guess again! I remember answering question after question about it in the mid-1980s, and if ingredients sold by the Paniplus Co. where I worked then were “natural.” My flippant response back then was, “The rubber in your tires is natural, and so is what comes out of the back end of a cow, but I wouldn’t want to eat either of those things.”

Now, like then, the definition of natural is left to those marketing, consuming or defending the term. Unfortunately, the defending of it has turned to class-­action lawsuits where consumers band with plaintiff’s lawyers to bring food manufacturers large and small to court.

One of the instances I remember was the Center for Science in the Public Interest taking 7UP soda to task for the use of the word “natural” in marketing while the product contained high-fructose corn syrup. The floodgates opened wide from then on, or so it seemed.

A colleague recently shared a story about a snack manufacturer of baked potato chips. The simple ingredient legend for this baked product included three things: potatoes, safflower oil and salt. The manufacturer was afraid to call them “natural” for fear of lawsuits. What a sad state of affairs for the industry.

Now that “natural” has become a lawyer’s dream and the food industry’s nightmare, where will we turn next?

After reporting to the marketing department for more than 15 years, I can only imagine the work going on behind the scenes to replace “natural” with a word equally descriptive and consumer-friendly. Marketers are likely spending a lot of time and money on consumer data and focus groups to determine what will resonate in a similar manner.

If you review recent hot topics from the Institute of Food Technologists convention in June, you will find an article written by Kelly Hensel titled “Clean Label is the New Natural.” In the article, Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, pointed out that “clean label” is really an industry term. For consumers, a “clean” label is one on which they recognize the ingredients. In addition, such products have more natural ingredients and are less processed.

Another possible term is “non-GMO” or “GMO-free.” Respected scientific authorities have acknowledged the safety of genetically engineered technology. However, when it comes to consumers, many of the opinions on genetically modified (GM) foods or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are based on emotion rather than fact.

Personally, I believe that people fear things they do not understand. Some just fear change, and genetic engineering represents change as well as a lot of misunderstanding. Many do not realize GM plants represent a significant positive effect on the environment and reduce the carbon footprint of many commodities and finished food products.

It is not likely that a marketing department will want to use the letters GMO on their food label in any fashion; they leave too much room for misinterpretation. When you use the thesaurus to find synonyms for “natural,” a few possibilities come up: “simple,” “unrefined,” “pure” and “honest,” to name a few.

These words, as well as the phrase “clean label,” are at the mercy of the consumer to define. Time will tell which word or phrase will take over next. My bet is that “simple” or “simply” will be the winner. “Deliciously Simple” or “Simply Delicious” makes me want to bake my favorite sweet treat or fresh bread. Because at the end of the day, taste is king!


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