hero-press overview share print facebook linkedin twitter

Study brings clarity to the meaning of food naturalness

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2017
  • Study conducted by Hero Group with University of Murcia and ETH Zürich
  • 15 attributes that provide a better understanding of when a food product is natural
  • Origin of the food, elaboration and final product determine food naturalness
  • Hero Group on its mission to conserve the goodness of nature works together with academia to improve consumer understanding of food naturalness

For the first time ever, a systematic study conducted by the Hero Group with two European universities has come up with a better understanding of the term ‘naturalness’ in food.

Often vague and sometimes overstated in the food industry, the lack of a universally-accepted description of what is natural has often led to confusion among consumers. According to the findings of the Hero Group study, people perceive a food product as natural depending on the origin of raw materials, the ingredients used, and the level of processing.

Food naturalness is considered crucial to most consumers, and products not perceived as such risk being left on store shelves – and this trend is likely to continue for a long time, the study said.

“Our mission at the Hero Group is to delight consumers by conserving the goodness of nature, but what precisely is key to consider for our products has led to considerable internal discussions. We did not want to impose our idea of what we believe constitutes naturalness, but rather find out what consumers understand it to be,” said Luisma Sánchez-Siles, Director Innovation at the Hero Group, one of the researchers in the study.

The term ‘natural’ is often used in the food industry, which is not surprising when one considers that a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center (2015) suggested that 62% of consumers buy products labeled ‘natural’. The same survey also suggest that more than half incorrectly believe the term is independently verified. The Nielsen Healthy Eating Trends Around the World 2015 report suggests that 57% of respondents were adding more natural food to their diets.

Paradoxically, despite being considered very important, the definition of naturalness varied in different countries and regions – until now

The Hero Group study, titled The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review,  was published in the renowned peer-review journal Trends in Food Science and Technology and includes a content review of 72 studies, shortlisted from an initial 1,000+ papers, spanning two decades and involving a staggering 85,000 consumers across 32 countries on four continents.

According to the research, the three highlighted categories are composed of 15 attributes that help better understand the concept of naturalness. While each element taken on its own is not new, the study collected all the different attributes mentioned in the more than 70 studies and brought them together under three categories. The study showed that:

  1. The origin of the food includes the use of organic raw material grown locally
  2. The elaboration of the food product has to be free from artificial ingredients, preservatives, additives, artificial colors and flavors, chemicals, hormones and pesticides, and GMOs
  3. The end result, the research showed, is healthy, eco-friendly and ‘in accordance with nature’, tasty, and fresh.

Interestingly, the study shows that customers’ perception of naturalness is focused more of the lack of negative attributes, such as additives, rather than the presence of positive attributes.

Over the years, considerable studies were conducted on naturalness, but according to the researchers, “… this is the first review that has identified, analyzed, and integrated the literature on consumers’ perceived importance of food naturalness”.

The study – conducted by Luisma Sánchez-Siles (Hero Group), Sergio Román (University of Murcia), and Michael Siegrist (ETH Zürich) – covers a vast number of people in developed countries from different age groups and sociodemographics who participated in various research programs over a 20-year period. While all the different research touched upon selected areas of naturalness, this study brings all the information together.

This review on naturalness comes at a time when consumers around the world are demanding more natural products. However, given the lack of a clear definition or regulation,  naturalness is open to various interpretations, leading to confusion among consumers.

“It is ironic, but no single definition exists on what constitutes naturalness. Take the origins of food as an example – if you have an organically-grown raw material, say an apple, it can be considered natural as a food product. However, what happens if you include heavy processing and add preservatives and chemicals? Can it still be called natural?” the researchers asked.

The study, which included close collaboration between the Hero Group and academia, also shows that naturalness is very important and it is strongly associated with health for the vast majority of people living in developed countries. This trend was observed across different countries over different periods of time.

Other points highlighted in the study include:

  • Production processes, ingredients, packaging, and marketing need to be combined in a way that consumers perceive the products as natural foods, similar to traditional food
  • Consumer perception about food naturalness of new food products or innovative food technologies should be taken into account at an early stage of product development
  • Replacing some of the synthetic food additives may impact the price of the product and shelf life, leading to potential consumer trade-offs – this may be a challenge for industry
  • Food naturalness importance is higher for women and older people
  • Consumers' food intake is significantly influenced by food naturalness importance
  • Neglecting the aspect of naturalness in the food industry may prove very costly

Key highlights

  1. First ever systematic study about naturalness perception in food, published in one of the top five peer-review global nutrition magazines
  2. A systematic review of the literature of more than 1,000 published studies has been conducted. In the end, 72 studies involving more than 85,000 consumers from 32 countries and four continents were included in the review
  3. Natural food is defined in three separate yet related categories: (1) How the food is grown (2) the way food is produced (ingredients and technology used), and (3) the properties of the final product
  4. Consumers' food intake is significantly influenced by food naturalness importance
  5. Consumer perceptions and innovative food technologies should be taken into account at an early stage of product or technology development. Neglecting the aspect of naturalness in the food industry may prove costly
  6. The study was conducted by three researchers, from academia (Sergio Román, University of Murcia and Michael Siegrist, ETH Zürich) and industry (Luisma Sánchez-Siles, Hero Group), with different backgrounds (marketing, nutrition and food science and psychology)

An interview with Michael Siegrist on the study can be accessed here.

Researcher bios

Professor Sergio Roman

Sergio Román (BA Manchester Metropolitan University, MBA International Trade, and PhD University of Murcia) is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Murcia (Spain). He is a leading expert in the field of business ethics and marketing. His work has been published in top journals, such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Interactive Marketing, and Journal of Business Research. He belongs to the Editorial Review Board of several international peer-reviewed journals. He is also a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona (USA).

Dr Luis Manuel Sanchez-Siles

Luisma Sanchez-Siles is Director Innovation for Infant Nutrition at the Hero Group (Headquarters in Lenzburg, Switzerland). He studied food science and technology and completed his PhD on Nutrition in Food Science at the University of Murcia (Spain).  He is an international expert in new food product development and nutrition research, and is a member of the Hero Scientific Committee.  He is driven by passion to develop more natural and heathier products as his responsibilities include the development for the next generation of infant foods with a better impact on public health.

Professor Michael Siegrist

Michael Siegrist is a professor for consumer behavior at the Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED), ETH Zürich, Switzerland. He studied psychology, economics and mass communication at the University of Zürich. He is an associate area editor of the journal Risk Analysis and an executive editor of the journal Appetite. He has published numerous articles about risk perception, trust, risk communication, food behavior and environmental decision making.

About Hero Group
The Hero Group is an international food company focused on branded nutritional food products. The company was founded in 1886 in Lenzburg, Switzerland, where its headquarters are still located today. Hero's main core product categories of Baby & Toddler Food and Milks, Jams, and Healthy Snacks are complemented by its activities in the Decoration and Gluten-free product segments. The Group, which lives by its mission to Delight consumers by conserving the goodness of nature, boasts a global footprint and its portfolio consists of many well-known international and local brands. In 2016, the Group generated revenues of CHF 1.27 billion.