On the surface, the term “natural” is easy to understand, but it’s not so easy to define when it comes to describing food products.
Is the product made without artificial colors and flavors? Is it free of high fructose corn syrup? Free of GMO ingredients?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t offer totally clear guidance on it, either. The agency says it historically has taken “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally have it.
However, that policy wasn’t intended to address processing or manufacturing processes. So, in response to consumer requests, the FDA solicited public comment on whether it should define the term and how to use it.
And it looks like we’re not the only ones perplexed about how “natural” can and should apply to food. New research from Mintel shows our neighbors to the north might be struggling with it, too. Confusion over what the term “natural” means has spurred companies to use more specific benefit claims on new product launches in Canada.
Mintel said there was a 366 percent increase in “GMO-free” claims on natural food/drink launches in Canada from 2007-17, while “no additives/preservatives” claims grew 21 percent. Meanwhile, less specific claims such as “all natural product” declined 62 percent in the same time period.
Although 42 percent of shoppers seeking natural or organic products are most likely to agree that foods and beverages with these claims are better for you, shoppers are just as likely to think natural/organic foods and beverages offer clear benefits (22 percent) as they are to think foods with these claims are a gimmick (19 percent).
And, consumers have an easier time defining organic claims than natural claims, as shoppers are more likely to consider organic products as being free of pesticides (53 percent vs. 35 percent natural), preservative-free (46 percent vs. 39 percent) and hormone-free (41 percent vs. 30 percent).
“Natural claims are evolving to provide greater clarity about the benefits of these products as consumers increasingly demand total transparency from food and drink companies, as noted in Mintel’s 2018 Global Food and Drink Trend ‘Full Disclosure,'” said Joel Gregoire, associate director, Canada Food and Drink Reports, at Mintel. “Manufacturers, companies and brands are responding by providing more defined positioning, including substituting vague claims like ‘all natural’ in favor of more specific claims such as ‘GMO-free’ or ‘preservative-free.’ As such, focusing on free-from positioning appears to be a more direct means to communicate the inherent value of natural/organic products.”
Though some consumers are unclear about the perceived health benefits of natural and organic products, it seems they’re buying them anyway. Three in 10 shoppers say they are buying more natural foods and beverages than a year ago — more than four times the percentage of consumers who say they are buying less (7 percent). Meanwhile, 28 percent of shoppers say they’re buying more organic foods and beverages this year compared to 11 percent who say they’re buying less.
Looking to support their children’s health, parents are most likely to purchase natural/organic products, with one-third saying that half or more of their groceries are natural/organic, with safety being a key driver. Four in 10 parents are more likely to find food and drink products with natural/organic claims to be safer, compared to 33 percent of non-parents.
“As natural and organic food and drink becomes a more mainstream grocery item, consumers are increasingly adding these items to their carts,” Gregoire said. “Our research shows that parents represent a key segment for natural/organic foods and drinks, with these products likely to comprise a greater proportion of their grocery baskets.”
Increased specificity is only going to help parents and other shoppers make purchase decisions, in Canada and the United States. What they’ll look for will evolve further over the next decade, but it’s up to manufacturers to provide the information — and products — that meet their needs.