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New Research Sheds Light on Meaning of ‘Natural’ Food

Image Credit: Genetic Literacy Project

The vague and often overstated use of the term “natural,” which lacks a universally accepted definition, has resulted in considerable confusion among consumers. A new study conducted by the Hero Group, parent company of baby food brand Beech-Nut Nutrition, hopes to address the problem by shedding light on how consumers understand the term.

The study, entitled The Importance of Food Naturalness for Consumers: Results of a Systematic Review, reveals that people perceive a food product as natural depending on the origin of raw materials, the ingredients used and the level of processing. It drew on 72 existing case studies on the topic involving 85,000 consumers across 21 countries.

“We know that parents want to feed their children natural products, but are often confused by what that really means,” said Andy Dahlen, VP of Marketing at Beech-Nut. “In this study, we sought to help clarify the definition by pulling together the data on what consumers understand it to be.”

According to the report, natural food is considered a top priority for consumers and products not perceived as such are at risk of being passed over. However, what constitutes “natural” with regards to food varied across countries and regions.

“While a number of studies have been conducted on the meaning of natural in food, this is the first review that has identified, analyzed and integrated the literature on consumers’ perceived meaning and importance of ‘natural’ food,” said Michael Siegrist of ETH Zurich, one of the study’s authors. “The study is an important first step in aligning consumer expectations with those of the food industry.”

Aligning with consumer perceptions, the research covers three key areas:

Products meeting these criteria are viewed by consumers as healthy, sustainable, tasty and fresh.

The results of the study could have consequences for both the development and marketing of foods, as well as the development of new food technologies. Food products that are not perceived as natural may not be accepted by consumers in most countries, as attitudes towards food continues to shift. Yet consumers have conflicting interests — while they want to eat unprocessed and natural foods, they want to save time. This poses a unique opportunity for the food industry, in which brands can harness technology to design food products that are perceived as natural by consumers. 

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