There has been increasing skepticism about foods labeled as natural, and increasing confusion about what natural really means. Currently, the term is not regulated, although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said recently that it is considering establishing a definition. Organic foods on the other hand, must adhere to well-defined certification standards set by the USDA. But market researchers at The Hartman Group claim that consumers are now looking beyond these categories.
Senior associate at The Hartman Group David Wright told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “It’s safe to say that organic and natural are both really loaded terms for consumers. They have a lot to say about those terms, but they have a lot to say about other, related terms.”
Related terms could include local, whole, fresh, safe, or nothing artificial, the market research organization said in its new report, Beyond Organic & Natural 2010.
“What we have seen consumers doing is making more considered choices,” Wright said, explaining that even though natural may not have an official definition, consumers have their own idea about what they seek in a natural product.
“Organic is about agriculture and the story of production but natural is about what happens after production,” he said.
The ‘after production’ part of the equation could cover minimal processing, fewer ingredients, or fewer artificial ingredients. And the whole gamut of messaging that includes, but goes beyond, these ideas is a concept that The Hartman Group sums up by the term ‘clean’.
“Everything seems to be coalescing around this notion of ‘clean’,” Wright said.
‘Clean’ encompasses a wide variety of attributes around sustainability, healthfulness, and safety – as well as the expectations that consumers have of natural foods, such as no artificial ingredients.
Wright said that part of the problem with foods labeled as natural is that they do not always live up to consumers’ expectations.
“A lot of consumers can end up disappointed when they look at the ingredient list…To consumers [natural] has been so overused from a marketing standpoint.”
Nevertheless, food manufacturers continue to launch natural foods and drinks, and it is now the leading label claim on new products, according to market research organization Mintel, featuring on 23 percent of new products launched globally last year.
Wright argues that for consumers to see this claim as credible there are a number of criteria that food manufacturers need to bear in mind.
“We have really nailed down what consumers are hoping for,” he said. “…What we are seeing is that there are very specific messages that they want to see. If it’s organic they want to see the story of production. For natural, it’s a short ingredient list and again, the story of production. There is a narrative they expect. Natural Cheetos, for example, short circuits.”
As for organics, The Hartman Group has been tracking consumers’ attitudes towards the sector for more than a decade, and is among several market research groups to have noticed that growth has flattened.
“Core organic consumers have been moving beyond organics to other products that also represent high quality,” Wright said.
However, he said that there is a much larger group of consumers who buy organic at least occasionally, and added that the fact the sector has not shrunk, even during recession, makes it “an impressive market”.