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What Consumers Consider as "Natural"

One of the biggest trends in food claims in recent years has been the claim of “natural.” Natural products are now easy to find in mainstream grocery stores and under mainstream brands. But with no official definition of “natural,” manufacturers often struggle to meet all consumers’ expectations in this area. Check out what today’s consumers think of as natural and how it affects their food choices. 

Defining “Natural”

With rising demand for natural foods and beverages, manufacturers have been rushing to reformulate, launch new brands, and even acquire companies to stay on trend. However, unlike nutritional labels and food claims regarding health, official guidance has been minimal in setting standards for natural claims, creating some challenges for manufacturers seeking to develop natural products.

While the FDA has not developed a definition, the agency has declared it won’t object to use of the term for foods that contain no added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The USDA defines “natural” only for meat and poultry, requiring that these foods are minimally processed and contain no added artificial ingredients.

potatoes

What “Natural” Means to Consumers

Manufacturers that rely only on government guidance for developing natural products without understanding what consumers are really looking for can easily miss the mark. For example, while carrageenan is a natural ingredient, consumers that don’t recognize it as something they’d find in their pantries may not feel it’s natural unless the manufacturer clarifies its origin. On the other hand, a product that contains a natural color (like beet juice) or added vitamins isn't technically "natural" but may be perfectly acceptable—and even desirable—to the natural foods consumer. 

Research probing consumers’ beliefs about “natural” shows consumers are drawn to the idea of natural foods as a healthier and more moral choice.1 A survey from Mintel offers a glimpse at consumer opinion on the term “natural.” Natural appeals to nearly half of US consumers with 49% agreeing they typically purchase natural foods. The results also reveal 53% of consumers associate the term “plant-based” with “natural.” While 50% of US consumers perceived “all natural” products as natural on food packaging.2

How Manufacturers Can Embrace Consumers’ Ideas of “Natural”

While “natural” food labeling should meet any government requirements, it should also pass the commonsense test to meet consumer expectations. According to Mintel, nearly 2 in 5 consumers agree that natural claims are too vague.3 Here are some key considerations in formulating natural foods and beverages to appeal to consumers specific needs:

1. No Artificial Ingredients

At a minimum, a natural product should be free from artificial ingredients, including artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives.

2. Familiar Ingredients

Using familiar ingredients and avoiding those with chemical-sounding names can help to reinforce a product’s natural status, even if it’s as simple as replacing “sodium bicarbonate” with “baking soda.”

3. Few Ingredients

Minimizing the number of ingredients in a product is another approach to natural food labeling, especially by calling out the number of ingredients or even listing them on the front of the package.

4. Minimally Processed

Terms that imply less processing are also likely to stand out to consumers as more natural—for example, cold-pressed or gently pasteurized, as well as “whole” to describe ingredients (such as whole wheat).

5. Grown or Raised in a Traditional Way

Food packaging claims that reference traditional production methods such as non-GMO, organic, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and grass-fed also signal to consumers a more natural product.

family eating breakfast

Addressing Consumer Needs

Food and beverage claims around “natural” continue to have high appeal because today’s consumers are seeking authenticity, transparency, and ultimately healthy and safe foods for themselves and their families. Food and beverage companies that can deliver their messages while avoiding ambiguity are well aligned to appeal to conscious consumers. 

Contact Glanbia Nutritionals to learn about our portfolio of healthy, natural ingredient solutions that can help you win over today's consumers.

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References

1. Chambers V, E., Chambers IV, E., & Castro, M. (2018). What is “Natural”? Consumer Responses to Selected Ingredients. Foods, v.7(4), doi: 10.3390/foods7040065.
2-3. Mintel, Are plant-based claims the next “all natural?”, July 2021. 

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