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All-natural claims: shopper confusion and a problem for other brands

New signposts are appearing with more frequency on the road to a healthier lifestyle. Product claims such as “100% Natural” or “All Natural” are showing up on food and beverage products more frequently as indicators of wholesome nutrition.

However, some are worried the terms are rife for abuse and that consumers don’t quite understand them since there are few rules. Plus, the organics industry fears that shoppers think “natural” is better than “organic.”

There’s no doubt that people want foods that are less processed and without ingredients that require a science degree to understand. They’re certainly spending more time looking at packaging claims and ingredient lists. According to a recent Angus Reid poll commissioned by Loblaw, almost seven out of 10 say they look at the nutritional information on packages.

Manufacturers and retailers have responded by expanding their product lines to include healthier food options, and the “natural” claim has become a favourite. In November, Wal-Mart Canada created a new line of natural foods called Wholesome Goodness. And last month Safeway in the U.S. launched one too, under the name Open Nature that company officials say will come to Canada.

Loss of trust in ‘natural’ claims in general could be significant

The “natural” claim is here to stay, with growth in every category from confectionery to soft drinks, according to Mintel, a market research firm. Two years ago in certain U.S. cities, for instance, Pepsi launched a cola called Pepsi Natural, made with natural sugar, natural caramel and kola nut extract.

However, the term “natural” remains ambiguous. It does not have any standards or requirements. While the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), responsible for the administration of food labelling policies, does have a definition of “natural” for labelling purposes, it admits that terms like “nature,” “mother nature” and “nature’s way” are often misused. CFIA makes it clear “advertisements should not convey the impression that ‘nature’ has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others.” This last point is critical because, as it turns out, consumers actually trust “natural” more than that other good-food guarantee: “organic.” That’s according to an online poll of 25,000 Canadians conducted last year by BrandSpark International, a Toronto-based brand agency.

The results were an unhappy surprise to organics’ manufacturers, says Dag Falck, organic program manager at Nature’s Path. Unchallenged, the trend toward natural poses a “significant threat” to the organic industry, concluded a white paper published by the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA) in August 2010, and “threatens to weaken all segments of the organic industry.”

Falck, a member of the task force that compiled the white paper, says growth of the natural channel at the expense of certified organics impacts the industry on several levels: increased environmental contamination and financial loss to farmers, processors, manufacturers and government who have all invested in the benefits of a regulated organic system.

In addition, consumers lose, as they believe they are getting “added value” when they choose “all-natural” foods and beverages. “Nobody benefits from a fraudulent marketplace,” he says. Organic makers may fret, but that’s not stopping grocery aisles from being filled with products that are natural, as well as those that claim to be. Last year there were 18,750 products launched with no additives or preservatives—a 20% increase from three years earlier, according to Mintel.

Claims will come under fire, as consumers seek accountability

The challenge for grocers and food manufacturers is that these products must live up to their advertising. Otherwise there’s risk of a consumer backlash. A recent survey by Mambo Sprouts Marketing reported one in three consumers are not confident in the current natural labelling, and two in three would be interested in purchasing more natural products if there were clear standards in place.

Mintel recently predicted that natural claims will increasingly come under fire, as consumers seek accountability from product brands. Matthew Holmes, executive director at COTA, agrees that retailers and manufacturers walk a fine line when they base product claims on an ill-defined term. “The loss of trust in brands and ‘natural’ claims in general could be significant,” he says.

That’s not to say retailers and manufacturers aren’t setting their own ground rules. Some manufacturers have pared down their ingredient list to, as the new slogan goes, “ingredients you can actually pronounce.” Safeway says its all natural line is made only from natural sources and the meats contain no added hormones or artificial preservatives, and animals are raised without antibiotics and fed an all vegetarian diet. Wal-Mart’s natural line is made by U.S.-based Wholesome Goodness, a company that says its goal is to combine all-natural ingredients with affordable prices. That is certainly a worthy aim.

If there is an upside to the natural tag, it’s that it gives shoppers a broader range of meal options. This has led to increased demands of accountability from those further along the path of health. It has also banded the organic industry to act in a co-ordinated and meaningful way to communicate the benefits of a regulated organic system to consumers and policymakers with such events as the first-ever Organic Week and Parliament Day last fall.

On the road to a healthier lifestyle, the “natural” claim may not be perfect, but the direction it is taking consumers and the grocery channel will eventually be the right one.

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