Is industry guilty of ‘sleight of hand’?
You don’t have to be any kind of food expert to recognise that, as a rule of thumb, the closer to nature that you eat – the better your diet will be, which could be beneficial to your overall health in the long term. But is it really that straight forward?
Global consumer research consistently shows that consumers perceive this link between natural and health. DSM recently conducted a study into the perceptions of naturalness and health of 1,419 consumers from Europe and South Africa (read more). It found that 84% of shoppers consider natural products to be healthier than conventional equivalents. Qualitative consumer research on a group of 7,000 European consumers carried out by Beneo also found that when asked to prioritise different statements in order of importance, 70% of respondents from the five countries surveyed replied that ‘natural products are better’; with 65% of UK respondents preferring ‘all things natural’. This preference for natural ingredients was also reflected in terms of ingredients names: ‘chicory root extract’ outperformed other fibre names, such as maltodextrin and polydextrose with respondents, in terms of sounding healthier, safer and recognisable (read more).
In the UK a study conducted by MMR Research Worldwide found that consumers see natural to be a proxy for healthy (read more). Of the 3,100 surveyed, 44% claimed to be health aware and motivated to eat healthily. Food categories perceived as natural are most closely associated with a strong health profile. The five categories perceived as most natural were also considered the healthiest; bread, baked beans, fruit juice and smoothies, breakfast cereal and yoghurt.
A Canadian Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report also revealed that consumers are most likely to pay more for items with claims signifying natural production methods, such as “hormone-” and “antibiotic-free”, with 46 % of consumers say they are now more concerned about additives in food than they were in 2012 (read more).
Natural to be even bigger business
Food companies have become very aware of this association between natural and health, and if recent moves by global food giants are anything to go by then natural is looking to be even bigger business over the next 4 years.
The retail market for natural and organic food and beverages is expected to grow at 10.1 % between 2014 and 2019, bringing the annual sales of natural and organic foods and beverages up to $86.7 billion in 2019. Coca-Cola, already riding the natural wave with the global roll out of Coca-Cola Life, decided to invest $90 million for a nearly 30% stake in Suja Juice – a company that produces beverages using non-GMO ingredients and high pressure instead of heat pasteurisation. Alongside other investors including Goldman Sachs, who invested a 20% stake at $60 million, Suja Juice is now valued at $300 million. Consumer desire for healthier drink options and the Coke’s need for product diversification were key drivers behind this decision to venture into the small but fast-growing organic market. But what will be the implications of this move to natural for food companies and consumers alike?
From natural niche to mainstream
Natural drinks are one current natural niche making it into the mainstream. They join a number of categories that have blazed the trail before with one of the biggest being yoghurt. Originally introduced as a niche health food product, yoghurt then went on to become a household staple following successful launches of products like the Swiss-invented Ski or the Japanese Yakult. What makes natural drinks different is that by the intrinsic nature of a drink being a transparent vehicle for it ingredients, it places those ingredients at the forefront. For instance if you are talking about a cold pressed apple and celery smoothie then the ingredients as well as the cold pressing process become the point of focus. Likewise, to declare that a drink is sweetened using only natural ingredients like stevia acts to ameliorate the issue of sweetener use. Ingredients are becoming the centre of the conversation.
As a result it has become, and will continue to be ever more difficult for food manufacturers to enjoy long-term success in the mainstream market with products perceived to be artificial. Beverage brands are already seeking alternatives to less healthy drink options. Earlier this month, Pepsi announced its decision to eliminate the artificial sweetener aspartame from Diet Pepsi. Even at the budget end of the market discount retailers are offering products that cater for this natural & organic market as consumers across the spectrum have become aware of potential adverse health implications of buying and consuming low-cost products containing ingredients like artificial colours, flavourings and sweeteners, benzoate preservatives, brominated vegetable oil, high fructose corn, MSG, olestra, hydrogenated oils and nitrates.
The shift towards natural will almost certainly mean more food companies replacing artificial ingredients with natural in order to compete for market share, which is a good thing. But is there also the risk that food companies might exploit this perception, selling us food that we think is healthy when that might not be the case?
Is natural always “good” and healthy?
Whilst on the whole sticking to natural foods will often guide most of us towards a healthy diet, this is not always the case. Diagnosis of food intolerances have rocketed with the autoimmune condition ‘celiac disease’ thought to affect 1 in 10. Many of the foods that cause allergic reactions, such as gluten and lactose, come from natural sources. This creates something of a conflict in the perception that natural is always good for health. The resolution in the minds of consumers is a movement away from ‘bad processing’ with food products made using vegetables or more exotic ‘superfoods’, seeds and whole foods like quinoa taking more and more shelf space from conventional wheat or corn based products like breakfast cereals as well as cheap processed foods bulked out with fillers. This has resulted in the rise of the free-from market, with the most optimistic reports predicting the global market to be worth over $8.8 billion by 2019. Sectors such as the bread and baked goods industry have had to adapt to this change with national brands developing gluten-free product lines or enriching their products with additional health ingredients as bread is no longer viewed as the healthy staple food it once was. According to Euromonitor International, gluten-free bakery products are the third fastest growing health and wellness category with sales up by 16% in 2014.
Even foods that have been presented to consumers as the pinnacle of natural have come under fire. From ingredients to marketing Innocent Smoothies screams natural, and whilst the company may still be on track to global domination with positive sales results from it European roll out, the company did face something of a stumbling block when mainstream media brought it to the public’s attention that smoothies contained more sugar than virtually all other mainstream drink options on the market. Smoothies make it easy for us to consume quantities of fruit that would seem ludicrous if it were attempted in whole-fruit form. Fructose is of course completely natural, but the danger is in the dosage, and too much can contribute towards diabetes, obesity, tooth decay and even compromised liver function. Juices can also eliminate a lot of the fibre from fruit. Sure, consumers in the know will be aware that the occasional small sip or swallow or a smoothie will provide lots of vitamins, anti-oxidants and other beneficial nutrients. However those who are less informed may well gulp down a whole carton in a single sitting. Even higher sugar content still can be found in natural kids treats with Fruit Bowl’s Fruit Flakes containing 62% sugar. In fact of all tactics employed by the most popular confectionary brands, promoting that their product is made from natural ingredients has been the most effective in disguising the fact that their product is inherently unhealthy.
Another common misconception is that natural products support nature. The cute child’s crayon scribble of a happy and idyllic farm can be far removed from the realities of modern farming practices. Soy and palm oil production for example causes mass deforestation and resulting in the extinction of many animal species (read more). The damaging effects of such practices are key to the arguments in supporting research into artificial protein production such as lab grown meat. In this instance artificial has the potential to be more environmentally friendly than natural farming techniques.
Where does the buck stop?
Where does the responsibility lie in how the ‘natural’ tag is used to market foods? Should there be more stringent regulation around the use of ‘natural’, similar to that which surrounds the use of ‘anti-oxidant’, where it is understood that these terms carry with them an implied health benefit? Or perhaps the implementation of more clear labelling such as a set of universal symbols that clearly indicate if foods contain soy, gluten, nuts or GM ingredients on the front of pack?
Perhaps more could also be done by the food companies themselves. After all is it not irresponsible for Innocent to offer its smoothies with a recommended serving size of 250ml (including 26g of sugar), or for Fruit Bowl to market sugary treats as healthy snacks for kids? Thankfully Innocent has already set about addressing some of these concerns with its most recent product development where smoothies have been effectively watered down into juicy waters, blended with vegetables or offered in smaller servings. Companies who choose not to pull ‘sleight of hand’ tricks, but rather adopting a more clear and transparent approach will most certainly be better positioned as consumers become better informed of what their food actually contains.
Indeed a huge share of the responsibility does lie with consumers. Not only do they need to ensure that they are clued up about which ingredient is which, but also how to read and understand what food packaging really is and really isn’t telling them. Thankfully this is something consumers have been getting a lot better at lately. For those suffering an intolerance, paying close attention to ingredients is a necessity. There are also many consumers who observe strict diets due in order to achieve weight or athletic performance goals, carefully studying a product’s ingredients and macros, with the aid of smartphone apps, before making an informed and often repeat purchase. As it is these groups who are leading some of the biggest trends in food (e.g free-from, paleo and mainstream active nutrition), there is hope that the products and brands that they choose will begin to set a new standard for the rest of the food industry to follow.