It has a pretty simple definition: ‘natural’, ‘existing in or formed by nature’. The trouble is, there are many opinions on how the term is used when it comes to food and drink ingredients. The contention isn’t new – it has long been the battleground for claim and counter claim by opposing groups.

But as consumers become ever more health and sustainability conscious, it is again becoming a matter of debate and even distrust for some. Financed by the European Commission, consumer group Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) has been pushing for clarity on the word natural – in relation to ingredients at least – for years. It says it’s research justifies a need for it, adding European consumers believe that when a product states it’s natural, that means no chemicals have been used.

Across Europe, demand for natural food ingredients/additives is on the rise. Groups of additives include colourants, preservatives, antioxidants, sweeteners, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents. But, as says SAFE’s Secretary General Floriana Cimmarusti, current legislative requirements don’t guarantee something is completely natural, even if it says it is. There is no definition of what natural, chemical or synthesised mean, she argues, almost leaving the industry to create its own and even capitalise on this lack of clarity. “It’s a great marketing tool,” she argues. “[The] industry is very smart, because it knows natural sells better and the law doesn’t go against them. So why not do it.”

Natural assumptions

Across the continent, a leading growth sector is organic food and drink too, with sales rising steadily year-on-year according to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) – established by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to its research, the main driver of sales is rising consumer awareness. It says European consumers want to avoid synthetic chemicals and pesticides in the food they eat, adding many are concerned about the environmental impact of conventional farming. This wish means the word natural is increasingly being sought out in packaging.

However, Cimmarusti says consumers aren’t overly aware of what natural actually means – or doesn’t mean. A fact not addressed by the current lack of a legal framework. Consumers want to do the right thing, for their bodies and the environment, but they’re making decisions largely based on trust and conscience rather than education and understanding, claims a 2021 study of consumer purchasing intentions among an Italian cohort.

The authors, from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and University of Naples Federico II, decried wanting regulatory framework. The group said they analysed the element driving the intention towards purchasing food with natural labels, gaining an understanding of what drives natural food intention in consumers. “The first insight we obtained is relative to the importance of conscious determinants. In addition, rational motives are intertangled with moral motives, due to the health and environmentally friendly ‘halo’ possessed by these products. A role is also played by trust, as happens for products characterised by credence attributes.” It concluded by calling for the development of an appropriate legal framework to regulate the use of natural as a food claim.

It’s an assertion Cimmarusti concurs with. She says from SAFE’s research, it is clear what’s written on food packaging is heavily influencing consumers, with the word “natural” proving to be critical. She continues that there are brands using the word simply for that reason. “It’s so strong,” she says, “for consumers who are worried about climate change, worry about what’s happening to our environment. That word ‘nature’ – ‘Oh, my god it’s great, let me buy it’.”

Defining the indefinable

Research undertaken by SAFE and by academia is among a growing tranche of work conducted to see how consumers make purchasing decisions and to pressure for formal definitions. However, Cimmarusti and SAFE believe other options should be explored too: “To have a definition is very complicated. In fact SAFE believes the best solution would be to write the list of ingredients and whether they come from synthesis or they’re natural. That is much easier than to have a definition.”

Groups like SAFE say the potential damage to human and environmental health caused by misleading claims on packaging has to be addressed. The so-called ‘health halo’ – a perception of good coming from claims on packaging, environmental, health or other – is driving consumer decisions, but potentially putting them at risk according to research. A 2019 UK-based study led researchers to call for stricter regulations on food labelling and product content. Looking at the impact that – what they said at the time was a relatively new trend – health claims made on some product packaging of foods marketed to children, shoppers were left confused and made decisions that could contribute to rising rates of childhood obesity.

“For consumers who are worried about climate change, worry about what’s happening to our environment. That word ‘nature’ – ‘Oh, my god it’s great, let me buy it’.”

Floriana Cimmarusti

In their work published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, they wrote: “Prepacked foods targeted to children can be consumed as part of a ‘balanced and healthy’ diet, yet their health and nutrition claims remain questionable… Stricter regulations on product composition, food labelling and marketing techniques are required to discourage the promotion of foods which might be considered obesogenic.” To be clear, the suggestion that health might be harmed by ingredients claiming to be natural is the result of people believing something is not what it actually is, rather than the ingredients themselves being harmful. Of course, some artificial additives have been linked with health concerns.

Asked whether he thought there is need for a legal definition on the use of “natural”, Carl Smith, head of innovations at natural flavouring supplier International Taste Solutions (ITS) agrees with SAFE that it’s a pretty complex question. It is, though, one that has to be seen in the context of the consumer. “I guess it comes down to how much interest the consumer is actually paying into what they’re taking on board,” he says. “Certainly in the UK consumers are becoming much more discerning in terms of what they want to eat. And I guess the term ‘natural’ does sort of imply healthy, good, clean label, clear label transparency; it has those kinds of connotations.”

“Certainly in the UK consumers are becoming much more discerning in terms of what they want to eat.”

Carl Smith

In the absence of regulation, Cimmarusti believes that at least for now legislators could introduce a requirements to simply say whether an ingredient is natural or has been synthesised. That, she says, would at least allow consumers to make informed choices. It too would be a welcomed change by shoppers who are becoming more motivated by claims. She says right now there is a cohort of consumers that know how to eat healthy and what to look for. There is another that is motivated by cost. But for the rest, it’s a lack of knowledge or interest in what they’re eating. “So it depends on which type of consumer we’re talking about; but in general, consumers would like to have much more transparency – to be given the correct information.”

People power

It seems, though, consumers are beginning to drive some change. Accepting that there’s possibly more manufacturers could be doing to bring clarity to the term “natural”, Smith says in the UK natural is already in high demand, with increasing numbers of his customers – manufactures – looking for natural and organic flavours. He adds there is growing demand to be able to use ingredients derived from the named fruit (FTNF) too, particularly in beverages. “If you’ve got a flavour which carries that terminology, it enables you to label the flavour as the named flavour; mean on the product you can actually call it natural strawberry or natural lemon flavouring, for example. For that to be the case a minimum of 95% of the flavouring component has to come from that flavour source,” he explains.

This, he determines, is likely the result of those shifting consumer wants. He says when first talking with his customers, they’re asked whether it’s a natural or synthetic flavour they want; more often than natural is the response. “We’re actually driven by our customers,” he explains, “who are largely driven by the retailers. So I’m guessing the main retailers aren’t really putting too much pressure on their own suppliers.”

On the face of it, legislation in the EU seems pretty clear. On food labelling it says: “If you sell food or beverages in the EU, you must provide essential information so that the end consumer can make an informed decision on their purchase.” That information includes a comprehensives list of all ingredients, including additives, which must be accurate, easy to see and understand, not misleading and indelible. It goes as far as to instruct manufacturers on the type and size of font used.

However, for Cimmarusti and SAFE at least, current regulations simply don’t go far enough. She says more has to be done to bring clarity, and even safety, to consumers. At best the current position leaves them with a lack of transparency. Whether things will change, for now Cimmarusti doubts it. Ultimately the onus has to fall on regulators if anything is to change. Cimmarusti accepts that food and beverage manufacturers already have an abundance of requirements being placed on them; if there is no legal imperative to do something, many won’t – particularly in the current financial climate. It is, therefore, up to lawmakers to act. Cimmarusti believes they have much more to do, with the entire issue at their door.