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Slowdown in natural claims ‘inevitable’, say market researchers

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition Food Datamonitor

Mintel, Datamonitor: Slowdown in natural claims ‘inevitable’
Natural claims on food and beverage products appear to be leveling off, according to recent product launch data from market research firms Datamonitor and Mintel. 

As marketers weigh qualifying the controversial claim versus abandoning it all-together, new promise could be emerging for the “fresh” descriptor, a Datamonitor survey found.

The percentage of new food products (excluding beverages) making any kind of natural claims has retreated over the past few years, though the claim is still quite prominent, according to Datamonitor. The company’s Consumer’s Product Launch Analytics database of new products found that 22.0% of new food products launched in the US from Jan. 1, 2013 to July 31, 2014 made some sort of “natural” claim, but that is down significantly from the 30.3% that did the same in 2010 and the 30.4% that did so in 2009.

“Quite honestly, I am surprised that the percentages are this high since a ‘natural’ claim has become lawsuit bait to the point where both Whole Foods​ and Trader Joe’s​ have been sued on the basis of products making natural claims that also contained ingredients alleged to be non-natural,”​ Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at Datamonitor, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“What does appear to be happening, though, is that companies are trying harder to qualify the ‘natural’ claim. In more cases, we are seeing the claim relate to the use of specific ingredients, such as natural flavors or natural sweeteners. There seems to be a perception that this qualification may help guard against legal action, though this remains to be seen.”

Overall, Mintel found that the percent of food and beverage introductions making an “all natural” claim held steady at 14% from year-end 2013 through July 2014, though a closer look at the quarterly data indicates a downward shift is occurring, Lynn Dornblaser, Mintel's innovation and insights director, told us.

“If you look at the data by quarter, what you see is that the percent of products with an ‘all natural’ claim in the month of August—so, Q3—is down to 8%,” ​she said. “Now, that could rise, but to me it seems to be indicating a shift in what's on the market.”

She said she expected a drop in product launches bearing the claim much earlier, noting that the delay could be related to the time it takes for products to actually get to market. “If that’s the case, then it could be the decline we are seeing in July will continue,” ​she added. “Given all the lawsuits, it seems inevitable.”

But it doesn't mean consumers aren't still interested in naturality as a characteristic. Indeed, Mintel found that consumers are still seeking out “natural attributes” in many categories, or at the very least say they are interested in trying them, according to Dornblaser. “We see that especially in sugar and sugar substitutes, for example,”​ she said. 

‘Minimally processed’ claim up; presents just as many legal issues as ‘natural’

As the natural claim has retreated, Datamonitor is seeing a pickup in alternative marketing claims, such as “minimally processed”, though Vierhile says claims like this have many of the same issues as “natural”, since there is no standard to indicate exactly what it means. 

Beech Nut packs newly launched "all natural" baby food in clear bottles.

“Also, we are seeing more companies use terms like ‘simply’ or ‘simple’ to describe products, like the Keebler brand is doing with Keebler Simply Made cookies or as is the case with Chobani Simply 100 Greek Yogurt,”​ he said. “One thing I should also note here is that packaging also plays a part, with more companies interested in clear packaging, like Beech Nut, to support the natural claim.”

Will fresh replace natural?

Citing results from Datamonitor Consumer’s 2013 Global Consumer Survey, Vierhile noted that while consumers are still attracted to the notion of more “natural” products, their pursuit of the natural claim could soon be replaced by “fresh”, as well as other supporting evidence of a product’s naturality (e.g., naturally high in nutrients vs. added nutrients).

“When consumers were asked ‘if you saw a food or drink product with the following descriptor or claim, would you consider it to be more or less nutritious?’, 14% of US consumers said that a ‘natural’ claim would lead them to consider a product to be ‘significantly more nutritious.’ That sounds good, until you look at the response for ‘fresh’ where 24% of consumers said they would consider a product with this claim to be ‘significantly more nutritious,’”​ he said. 

“To some degree, the pursuit of fresh is displacing the pursuit of natural.”

The survey results also suggest that consumers may be looking for products high in ingredients that may be perceived to be naturally high in nutrients instead of products that have nutrients added to them. When asked how appealing they found a food and drink product that is naturally high in nutrients, 52% of US consumers said that this was very appealing—significantly higher than the 18% who said a product with added nutrients was very appealing.

“Based on this finding, it appears that consumers are looking well beyond simple health claims, and are looking for more supporting evidence that a product is natural, and that evidence may include the use of ingredients known to be ‘good for you’ as well as a product that is perceived to be more fresh than competing products,” ​Vierhile added.

What is natural, and who decides? Plantiff’s attorneys? Consumers? Retailers? Are ‘all-natural’ claims still resonating with consumers or are other cues more important? And how does a consumer determine if a food is less processed?

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To hear answers to these questions and more, sign up for FoodNavigator-USA's Natural & Clean Label Trends Forum​ on​ Sept. 30 at 11:30 am EDT.

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