We want ‘natural’ food but can’t define it

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Whether or not people think a food is “natural” primarily determines whether it succeeds in the market, but the word “natural” can mean a lot of different things.

“The importance of naturalness for foodstuffs is of great practical relevance, yet it has never been the subject of in-depth research,” says Michael Siegrist, professor for consumer behavior at ETH Zurich and author of the study in Trends in Food Science & Technology.

Siegrist and colleagues identified 72 scientific studies related to perception of foods as natural and what, exactly, that designation means.

They used five factors to measure the meaning of naturalness:

  • How was the product grown? (E.g., organically or locally)
  • How was it processed? (E.g., with or without additives, colorings, flavorings, and hormones)
  • How much was it processed? (The lower the better, in the consumer opinion)
  • How natural does the final product appear to consumers? Keywords here: health and taste, freshness, and ecological focus.

“Naturalness” may seem like a cohesive term, but the study reveals that it is in fact highly abstract and evokes extremely varied associations.

“It’s notable that all the studies conclude that popularity among a majority of consumers is closely linked to how natural a product is perceived as being. This was true for 85,000 participants from 32 different countries across a period of around 20 years,” says Siegrist.

However, it’s worth noting that all of the studies were carried out in relatively wealthy industrialized countries in Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania. In developing and emerging market countries, heavily processed products may be perceived more positively as they are expensive and thus associated with social prestige. The same inquiry might well produce the opposite result there: a lower status given to “natural” foodstuffs and a higher one to industrially produced products, suggests Siegrist.

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When analyzed in detail, the comparison shows that older people and women are more concerned with naturalness than young people and men, and that consumers who prefer organic products place particular importance on the naturalness of food.

This also seems to be the case for individuals who focus on traditional, sustainable, healthy, and organic products when shopping. It should therefore come as no surprise that the study links an inclination towards naturalness with negative attitudes towards technological innovations in the food industry.

This point led the researchers to their key conclusion: companies working with innovative food technologies—such as in vitro meat and 3D-printed food—need to keep the naturalness factor in mind.

“Even though human perception is clearly subject to certain distortions, the key role that authenticity plays in the acceptance of foodstuffs is a fact. This means that products which are perceived as artificial will not be accepted by consumers in future either,” argues Siegrist.

Source: Norbert Staub for ETH Zurich