What is natural, can we measure it and how important is it to consumers anyway? Three researchers attempted to answer these questions by sifting through the results of 72 existing studies involving 85,000 consumers across 32 (mainly European) countries.
“This study is a starting point from where the industry, consumer groups and authorities can get together to agree on a definition,” said Dr Luisma Manuel Sánchez-Siles, director of innovation at Swiss food manufacturer Hero’s infant nutrition R&D department, who partnered with Professor Sergio Román from the University of Murcia and Professor Michael Siegrist from ETH Zürich for the review.
Three is the magic number: Origin, ingredients and processing
They found that three key elements shape consumers’ understanding of natural food.
The first is the origin of the raw materials used, including how the crops are grown and whether they are natural. Given that the use of organic or non-GMO ingredients is a key indicator of naturalness, certification is an effective way to be perceived as a natural product. “Certification of some of these attributes could significantly improve consumers’ trust in the food industry,” said Sánchez-Siles.
The second relates to the ingredients used – banishing artificial flavours and colours, preservatives, additives, hormones, pesticides and GMOs will increase a product’s natural credentials – and the authors note that many manufacturers are already moving in the right direction here thanks to the clean label movement.
The third is the level of processsing, which should be kept to a minimum. “[This] means the processing involved should maintain the integrity of raw natural products as much as possible.”
For processing, however, it’s all about striking a balance.
“Consumers often have conflicting interests,” write the authors. “They want to save cooking time and buy convenience food; at the same time, they like to eat unprocessed and natural foods. This issue also poses an opportunity for the food industry. Production processes, ingredients, packaging, and marketing need to be combined in a way that consumers perceive the products as natural foods that have similarities with traditional ones.
Towards a legal definition for Europe?
So does Europe need a legal definition of what's natural? The USA's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering one. After inviting stakeholders to send in their proposals and comments (it received 7,690) it is now trawling through the results.
Sánchez-Siles told FoodNavigator: “We believe that a clear definition of food naturalness for the industry to share a common understanding would definitely be of value to consumers. A legal definition can only add transparency and clarity into this complex topic, which consumers deserve.
“Still, as evidenced in our study, this is indeed a very complex and abstract concept, and therefore it is not a question of being ‘100% natural’ or not.
“Rather, the opportunity would be to establish a degree of naturalness for food products that takes into consideration the ingredients in a product, how they are processed and how they are finally offered to consumers.
The authors also found that the definition of natural varies according to the country and region, meaning a single definition for the EU’s 28 member states could be challenging.
Lessons to learn
Hero, which initiated the study but did not fund it, said it would use the results to bring its portfolio in line with consumer expectations. The technology used for its Coldpuree baby food range sold under its Beech Nut Nutrition brand, for instance, already reduces processing to the bare minimum required to puree fruit and vegetables, retaining the colour, nutrients and texture of the ingredients, it said.
As well as baby food and infant nutrition, Hero also manufactures cereal bars under the brand names Semper in the Nordic region, Corny in Germany and Hero Muesly in Spain, as well as jams, gluten-free breads and cake decoration kits.
Source: Trends in Food Science & Technology
Published online ahead of print 16 June 2017, doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2017.06.010
“The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review”
Authors: Sergio Román, Luis Manuel Sánchez-Siles, Michael Siegrist