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How a meaningless word has come to mean everything

It’s splashed all over ads and packaging, but there’s actually been very little research until now into the importance of ‘natural’ food to consumers.

Over the last two centuries, the application of technology to food has transformed the way we eat. Preservatives, genetic modification, and advanced processing methods have given us canned goods with year-long shelf-lives, seedless fruits and disease-free vegetables, and tasty snacks for eating on-the-go.

But as food technologies have advanced, so has public concern regarding their safety and health impacts, to the extent that many of today’s consumers prefer to buy foods that they perceive to be natural – not high-tech.

That’s the conclusion of researchers from Spain and the Swiss Federal Technology Institute ETH Zurich, who reviewed studies of over 80,000 consumers from 32 developed countries – mostly in Europe – conducted between 1995 and 2017. Their analysis, which was published last month in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology, revealed that the perception of food as natural was consistently found to be “crucial” to consumers.

“There has been a shift in consumer preferences from the highly-processed foods of the 1980s, to products that are less highly processed,” Christina Hartmann, a postdoctoral researcher in the Consumer Behaviour group at ETH Zurich, tells swissinfo.ch.

“Because there was poor marketing concerning artificial coloursandflavours and chemicals, now peopleare afraid that there is something unhealthy ordangerousin their food.”

But the researchers also found that the term ‘natural’ is vague and abstract, varying significantly in its associations among consumers and researchers alike.

“The importance of naturalness for foodstuffs is of great practical relevance, yet it has never been the subject of in-depth research,” study author Michael Siegrist said in an ETH Zurich press statement.

In the absence of a single definition, the researchers grouped the factors used to assess the importance of naturalness into three main categories: how food was grown, how it was produced, and how the final product was perceived.

Industry impacts

Given the observed importance of food naturalness for consumers, the authors concluded that food manufacturers must heed these results if they want their products to sell – particularly as food technology continues to advance. They therefore recommend that the food industry, when developing new products, consider early on how consumers may perceive them.

“It’s not about lying to consumers, but about somehow creating a product image that is perceived as healthy and natural,” Hartmann explains.

That’s a tall order, especially since the researchers also found in their analysis that placing a high importance on perceived naturalness tends to be correlated with a negative perception of new food technologies – like 3D-printed food or personalised nutrition.

Adding a further wrinkle is the fact that the customers aren’t always rational – in fact, they often contradict themselves. The authors note that while consumers may prefer natural foods, they also want the benefits that come with some aspects of technological advancement, like food safety, affordability, and convenience.

“What people believe is healthy and what in fact is healthy is not always the same thing, but these beliefs about health influence naturalness perception,” Hartmann explains.

A cleaner label

One of the best hopes the food industry may have at balancing consumer perceptions of natural with technological progress is transparency. Some food manufacturers, grocery chains and restaurants are already rising to the challenge, the review authors note, notably with a “clean label” strategy prioritising simple, easy-to-read ingredient lists that minimise artificial additives. In Switzerland, clean label products may also eliminate E numbers – EU-defined codes that stand in for certain additives on European food ingredient lists.

The clean label movement that has largely been driven by consumer demand, given the lack of government regulation of products marketed as natural. But that appears to be changing.

In December last year, a new EU law went into effect aimed at updating food ingredient and nutrition labelling requirements to make them simpler for food manufacturers to print, and easier for consumers to read. The update also includes “strengthened rules to prevent misleading practices”.

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration is in the process of updating its own nutrition labelling regulations in a ruling that should also cover use of the word ‘natural’, in response to several consumer petitions requesting that it be more strictly controlled. As part of this revision, the agency appealed to consumers during a public comment period last year, asking how they thought the agency should define the word, and how they believed it should be used appropriately on food labels.

The future of food

The review authors emphasise a need for more research on what people associate with the word ‘natural’ as applied to food, and what factors influence people’s preferences. They also recommend more long-term studies to determine how consumers’ perceived importance of naturalness translates into behaviour (shopping, eating, etc.).

Finally, they note that opposite conclusions could potentially be reached in a study that includes developing nations. They reason that since heavily processed foods are more expensive in these regions, they are likely to be associated more with wealth and prestige and may be viewed more positively than natural foods.

But regardless of location, morals, and dietary preference, Hartmann says that her advice to all consumers is always the same: stay informed.

“The best consumers can do is inform themselves about products and where they come from, and not rely only on marketing,” she says.

Nanoparticles in your food?

Last month, scientists at the University of Zurich found that nanoparticles contained in the ubiquitous food additive E551 silicon dioxide, also known as silica, can have harmful health impacts.

The material is derived from the mineral quartz, and has been used in the food industry as a caking agent for nearly a century. It gets added as a powder to dried soups, instant coffee and spices to prevent clumping and maintain a smooth pour.

But it turns out silica isn’t as inert as researchers thought. Hanspeter Nägeli and his team at the UZH Institute for Pharmacology found that these particles – defined as nanoparticles since they are less than 100nanometres in size – can activate certain immune cells, potentially triggering an inflammatory response in the digestive tract.

The researchers are quick to put their findings into perspective, noting that inflammatory gut diseases are usually the result of a combination of many factors, of which these silica particles could potentially play a role. However, “their mass use needs to be rethought,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was conducted as part of the Swiss National Science Foundation National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials”.

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