Research investigates what consumers see as 'natural'

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food

An investigation into what the term ‘natural’ means for consumers has concluded that manufacturers wanting to position products as natural should use ingredients that have undergone physical rather than chemical processing, process less, and label chemical names rather than E-numbers.

Natural is a major trend in the food sector, but they is no firm agreed definition of what natural actually means across food categories and across markets. Nonetheless, manufacturers are keen to cater to the resurgence of interest in foods that are perceived as ‘natural’. In September 2008 Mintel reported that some 23 per cent of new products launched in Europe so far that year claimed to have no additives/ preservatives in them.

For a new study accepted for publication in the journal Appetite, researchers from CSIRO in Adelaide, Australia, and AgroParisTech in France set out to test eight hypotheses on food ingredient use and processing with consumers, in a bid to help manufacturers understand what they are looking for.

They noted that although a lot of attention has been paid to consumers’ view of novel new technologies like nano- and biotechnology, “the issue of added food ingredients and the way food is manufactured has received surprisingly less attention in scientific journals”.

The hypotheses they came up with were:

  • Contagion accounts for naturalness reduction, but is independent of dose.
  • Chemical changes are more potent than physical changes.
  • Process is more important than content.
  • Minimal effect of mixing like natural entities.
  • The more processing the greater the effect.
  • Chemical names (or E-numbers) have a greater effect than common names describing the same entity.
  • Addition has a greater effect than removal
  • Novel ingredients have a greater effect than known ingredients

The researchers recruited 190 participants, who were representative of the Australian population by age, sex and education. They attended two sessions at the CSIRO labs, where they used a computer programme to rank 50 food product examples by how natural they thought them to be.

On analysing the results, they found that some implications for new products were quite clear:

“Products with physical changes, less processing, with like ingredients and, if legally possible, avoiding the use of E-numbers.”

Others depended on gender or education. For instance, educated females wanted more information on about the descriptions of additives mentioned by their common or chemical names.


Appetite (2010) – online ahead of print


“Consumers’ ratings of the natural and unnatural qualities of foods”

Authors: Evans, G., de Challemaison, B., Cox, D.

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