- Study conducted by Hero Group with University of Murcia and ETH Zürich
- 15 attributes that provide a better understanding of when a food product is natural
- Origin of the food, elaboration and final product determine food naturalness
- Hero Group on its mission to conserve the goodness of nature works together with academia to improve consumer understanding of food naturalness
For the first time ever, a systematic study conducted by the Hero Group with two European universities has come up with a better understanding of the term ‘naturalness’ in food.
Often vague and sometimes overstated in the food industry, the lack of a universally-accepted description of what is natural has often led to confusion among consumers. According to the findings of the Hero Group study, people perceive a food product as natural depending on the origin of raw materials, the ingredients used, and the level of processing.
Food naturalness is considered crucial to most consumers, and products not perceived as such risk being left on store shelves – and this trend is likely to continue for a long time, the study said.
“Our mission at the Hero Group is to delight consumers by conserving the goodness of nature, but what precisely is key to consider for our products has led to considerable internal discussions. We did not want to impose our idea of what we believe constitutes naturalness, but rather find out what consumers understand it to be,” said Luisma Sánchez-Siles, Director Innovation at the Hero Group, one of the researchers in the study.
The term ‘natural’ is often used in the food industry, which is not surprising when one considers that a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center (2015) suggested that 62% of consumers buy products labeled ‘natural’. The same survey also suggest that more than half incorrectly believe the term is independently verified. The Nielsen Healthy Eating Trends Around the World 2015 report suggests that 57% of respondents were adding more natural food to their diets.
Paradoxically, despite being considered very important, the definition of naturalness varied in different countries and regions – until now
The Hero Group study, titled The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review, was published in the renowned peer-review journal Trends in Food Science and Technology and includes a content review of 72 studies, shortlisted from an initial 1,000+ papers, spanning two decades and involving a staggering 85,000 consumers across 32 countries on four continents.
According to the research, the three highlighted categories are composed of 15 attributes that help better understand the concept of naturalness. While each element taken on its own is not new, the study collected all the different attributes mentioned in the more than 70 studies and brought them together under three categories. The study showed that:
- The origin of the food includes the use of organic raw material grown locally
- The elaboration of the food product has to be free from artificial ingredients, preservatives, additives, artificial colors and flavors, chemicals, hormones and pesticides, and GMOs
- The end result, the research showed, is healthy, eco-friendly and ‘in accordance with nature’, tasty, and fresh.
Interestingly, the study shows that customers’ perception of naturalness is focused more of the lack of negative attributes, such as additives, rather than the presence of positive attributes.
Over the years, considerable studies were conducted on naturalness, but according to the researchers, “… this is the first review that has identified, analyzed, and integrated the literature on consumers’ perceived importance of food naturalness”.
The study – conducted by Luisma Sánchez-Siles (Hero Group), Sergio Román (University of Murcia), and Michael Siegrist (ETH Zürich) – covers a vast number of people in developed countries from different age groups and sociodemographics who participated in various research programs over a 20-year period. While all the different research touched upon selected areas of naturalness, this study brings all the information together.
This review on naturalness comes at a time when consumers around the world are demanding more natural products. However, given the lack of a clear definition or regulation, naturalness is open to various interpretations, leading to confusion among consumers.
“It is ironic, but no single definition exists on what constitutes naturalness. Take the origins of food as an example – if you have an organically-grown raw material, say an apple, it can be considered natural as a food product. However, what happens if you include heavy processing and add preservatives and chemicals? Can it still be called natural?” the researchers asked.
The study, which included close collaboration between the Hero Group and academia, also shows that naturalness is very important and it is strongly associated with health for the vast majority of people living in developed countries. This trend was observed across different countries over different periods of time.
Other points highlighted in the study include:
- Production processes, ingredients, packaging, and marketing need to be combined in a way that consumers perceive the products as natural foods, similar to traditional food
- Consumer perception about food naturalness of new food products or innovative food technologies should be taken into account at an early stage of product development
- Replacing some of the synthetic food additives may impact the price of the product and shelf life, leading to potential consumer trade-offs – this may be a challenge for industry
- Food naturalness importance is higher for women and older people
- Consumers’ food intake is significantly influenced by food naturalness importance
- Neglecting the aspect of naturalness in the food industry may prove very costly