What does ‘natural’ food mean? Researchers develop index to boost transparency, simplicity, and trust

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

The term 'natural' is commonplace on food packaging, but what does the adjective actually mean in this context? ©GettyImages/sergeyryzhov
The term 'natural' is commonplace on food packaging, but what does the adjective actually mean in this context? ©GettyImages/sergeyryzhov

Related tags natural claims NutriScore Organic

Researchers have developed a comprehensive index that measures the degree of naturalness in foods. The integrative tool could “significantly improve transparency, simplicity, and trust in the food marketplace,” Hero Group’s Luis Manuel Sánchez-Siles tells FoodNavigator.

The term ‘natural’ is commonplace on food packaging, whether it be on muesli bar wrappers, breakfast cereal boxes, or on packets of confectionery. But in this context, what does the adjective actually mean? Does it assure consumers a product is ‘healthy’, minimally processed, or additive-free?

Swiss food manufacturer Hero Group, which makes baby food, infant nutrition, jams, gluten-free breads, cake decoration kits, and cereal bars, found itself asking the same questions.

“We found that there was no standard definition about what natural means in foods and this was originating a lot of internal discussions in our company,”​ said Dr Luis Manuel Sánchez-Siles, director of research & nutrition at Hero Group.  

“We realised that this was a worldwide problem that led to consumer confusion as well as suboptimal consumer choices as a consequence of the industry misuse of natural claims.”

To better understand what ‘natural’ means from a consumer point of view, Hero Group partnered with ETH Zurich and the University of Murcia and published a scientific review​ in Trends in Food Science and Technology ​in 2017.

And now, this review – together with legal, scientific and technical insights – has helped the researchers develop a comprehensive and standardised index that measures the degree of naturalness in food products.

“Basically, we are proposing a possible solution to a problem that has not being solved,”​ Dr Sánchez-Siles told FoodNavigator. “We strongly believe that the use of the Food Naturalness Index (FNI) could significantly improve transparency, simplicity, and trust in the food marketplace.”

The Food Naturalness Index

The FNI measures the degree of a food product’s naturalness on a scale of one to five.

“The FNI is similar to the NutriScore [system],” ​explained Dr Sánchez-Siles, referring to the front-of-pack (FOP) algorithm logo that analyses a food’s nutritional composition, “but instead of measuring the nutritional quality it measures the degree of naturalness in food products”.

The index considers four main criteria for measuring naturalness:

  • The different farming practices​ that, according to legislation and standards, have differences in the use of pesticides fertilizers and, therefore, influence the quantity of contaminants. (e.g. An organic baby food product is considered more natural than conventional product targeted to adults)
  • The number of additives​ declared in the product.
  • The number of unnecessary/unexpected ingredients​.
  • The number ofprocessed ingredients​, the use of minimal processing technologies​, and the type of storage used​ (frozen, cold, or ambient storage).

In order to evaluate the extent to which the FNI was linked to consumers’ perceptions on ‘naturalness’, the research team tested the index on 30 products with consumers in Switzerland. “The results showed that the FNI aligns with consumers’ perceptions of food naturalness,”​ said Dr Sánchez-Siles.

FNI could help establish rules for natural-related claims

According to the public-private research team, the FNI could have a ‘significant impact’ on the food environment. This, of course, will rely on collaboration between industry, academia and policymakers, the Hero Group executive told this publication, “to avoid claim misuse and to provide better and more transparent information to consumers”.

“At the end of the day, we are all consumers and we deserve transparency, simplicity and clarity when making food choices.” – Dr Luis Manuel Sánchez-Siles, director of research & nutrition at Hero Group.  

The FNI could help policymakers determine a definition, and establish rules and requirements regarding natural-related claims, Dr Sánchez-Siles continued. “The application of the FNI or a similar score would result in a more transparent, simple and objective purchase evaluation process by consumers.”

The index could also play an important role in academia. For example, it could be possible to assess if food naturalness is linked to other food aspects, such as the degree of processing (using the NOVA classification), nutritional quality (using NutriScore), or sustainability measurements (using Life Cycle Assessment), we were told.

Reformulation and FOP labelling 

The team hopes the index will also help food manufacturers reformulate for more natural products. “The FNI could potentially provide a good tool for developing new foods and reformulating existing ones toward more natural food products,” ​Dr Sánchez-Siles suggested.

Indeed, Hero Group has been using the FNI internally since 2016. “Thanks to its application we have significantly advanced our portfolio towards food naturalness,” ​the director of research & nutrition revealed. “Overall, this is because the index can be calculated using information that is easily available for everybody in food product labels.”

Other benefits for retailers and manufacturers include the index’s potential use in product labelling. Such companies could employ the FNI to communicate the naturalness of food products in an ‘objective’ and ‘easy-to-understand’ way on a FOP logo.

The research team’s commentary, ‘The Food Naturalness Index (FNI): An integrative tool to measure the degree of food naturalness’​, will be published in Trends in Food Science & Technology ​in September 2019.

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1 comment

Natural At Least Makes Sense

Posted by U235,

Natural may mean different things to different people. So, defining when the word can be used is understandable so it is a universal word.

What is "Clean?" How is a food clean? Are they using bleach? I think clean is way more confusing than natural. Clean already has a universal definition which means something was determined and/or made clean. What is being done to food to make it clean and how is that measured? Clean needs a definition too.

If consumers are confused on natural, organic, and non-gmo...ask them what clean food is.

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