- In order to be considered "natural," food products must be free from preservatives as well as artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners, according to an online survey of 5,175 people from 10 countries by GNT Group.
- Two-thirds (66%) said they routinely check ingredients, and if they don't have time to individually evaluate every product component, they scan the label to make sure there are no ingredients they're trying to avoid.
- If the food item does contain coloring, 54% of the respondents said they prefer natural coloring such as edible fruits and vegetables. Only 5% said synthetically produced colors were acceptable.
There is still no official U.S. government definition for the term "natural" when it comes to food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been asked so many times about it that the agency posted this concise statement:
"From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."
Consumers, however, are undeterred and seem to intuitively know what "natural" is when they see it, or when they read it on an ingredient list.
This confusing situation leaves manufacturers treading a fine line between innovation and consumer appeal when it comes to spending money on devising "natural" foods and beverages and then successfully marketing them. Since the definition is so vague, how can a brand succeed?
There have been some expensive missteps in this area. In 2014, General Mills settled a lawsuit over use of the phrase “all-natural” on some of its Nature Valley products. The agreement prevents the company from describing products that contain high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin as “natural.” And, in 2015, Diamond Foods settled a lawsuit by agreeing to compensate consumers who bought Kettle Brand products that contained a "natural" or similar label in the U.S. between Jan. 3, 2010, and Feb. 24, 2015.
Natural colors are increasingly becoming a must-have for manufacturers and consumers. For manufacturers, there has been a 77% growth rate for new products using natural colors between 2009 and 2013. Other stats show 68% of all food and beverage products launched in North America from September 2015 to August 2016 used natural colors.
GNT Group survey results indicated that to what degree ingredients matter depends on the particular product. With sweets and soft drinks, consumers assume — but don’t approve of — the use of artificial ingredients since more than half of the respondents thought these products usually contain synthetic additives. However, more than one person in three would buy sweets, lemonade, ice cream and the like more frequently if they were made with natural ingredients only.
Yogurt was perceived as the most natural product of the group, with two-thirds of all respondents refusing to accept additives in that category and preferring that it only contain natural ingredients.
The takeaway is that a product that bills itself as "natural" — especially if it's an indulgent sweet — is likely to do better with consumers. However, the fact that there is no definition of "natural" in the United States makes it a potentially hazardous label claim, since consumers can easily bring lawsuits challenging the ingredients. For the sake of both manufacturers and consumers, it might make sense for FDA to provide a definition.