What ‘natural’ means for consumers

Posted by Josette Dunn on 15th March 2010

In today’s health conscious society, consumers are increasingly choosing products they view as healthy. ‘Natural’ foods are considered healthier than ‘artificial’ – but what does ‘natural’ constitute?  Food manufacturers want to meet this consumer demand, and many products claim to be ‘natural’, but there is no universal or legislated definition of what a product must or must not contain, or how it must be processed, in order to claim it is natural.

A new study by researchers from CSIRO in Australia and AgroParisTech in France tested eight hypotheses with consumers, about the use and processing of food ingredients, to gain an understanding of what consumers looked for in ‘natural’ products.

The hypotheses they tested were:

  • Chemical changes are more potent than physical changes
  •  Process is more important than content
  • Contagion accounts for naturalness reduction, but is independent of dose
  • Minimal effect of mixing like natural entities
  • The more processing the greater the effect
  • Addition has a greater effect than removal
  • Novel ingredients have a greater effect than known ingredients
  • Chemical names (or E numbers) have a greater effect than common names describing the same entity

A group of 190 Australians participated in the study, representative of the nation’s population in terms of age, sex and education.  During two sessions at the CSIRO labs in Adelaide the participants used a computer program to rank 50 product examples by how natural they considered them to be.

The researchers analysed the results,  and found that “Products with physical changes, less processing, with like ingredients and, if legally possible, avoiding the use of E-numbers” were considered more natural by the participants.  This is valuable information for food manufacturers, showing them what they need to do to attract consumers seeking natural food products.