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What savvy consumers want from 'natural'

Shoppers increasingly understand that natural itself may not mean very much and are looking for attributes to back up those claims, according to a new survey of more than 5,000 people.

The use of “natural” on food labels has been a source of confusion for years, yet the word has continued to grow in its importance to consumers. To help brands understand what consumers are looking for when they look for natural, ingredients manufacturer GNT conducted a global survey on people’s perceptions and priorities in 10 countries, and found some interesting results: About two-thirds of consumers worldwide check the ingredients when they’re shopping. Important for most of them are “clean labels” with easy-to-understand product information, including short ingredient lists with names they know and understand.

Here are some other key takeaways.

What consumers mean by natural: 75 percent of consumers said natural means a food should contain no additives; 64 percent thought “natural” and “healthy” food are the same thing; and at least 70 percent thought a product described as natural should be in its natural state, 100 percent pure, fresh, or high in vitamins and minerals.

Artificial colors = bad: Artificial additives, particularly colors and preservatives, topped the consumer blacklist. Two-thirds of consumers reject artificial colors in food and beverages, while more than half place particular value on the use of natural colors, according to the survey.

Yogurt was the category perceived as most natural, and two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they wouldn’t accept additives in their yogurt, preferring that it contains only natural ingredients. One in three people said they would buy sweets, lemonade, ice cream and other treats more frequently if they were made with natural ingredients only. The report noted that while demand for naturalness has reached all food and drink categories, there may be untapped opportunity in sweets and soft drinks, where 40 percent of consumers avoid products with ingredient information they don’t understand. Here, said the report, “replacing additives with natural alternatives can help brands to stand out and create an additional incentive for purchase.”

Be credible: Consumers are increasingly savvy to the fact that natural itself may not mean very much, and are looking for attributes to back up those claims. Front-of-package claims can be effective but need to be credible. Specifically, “with natural colors” and “colored with fruit and vegetables” were found to be perceived as credible by more than three-quarters of consumers.

When consumers saw a label claiming no artificial colors, brand preference rose by up to 20.3 percent, but when they saw “colored with fruit and vegetables,” it rose by up to 32.2 percent—and brand preference was enhanced even when prices also rose. The key seems to be the value of communicating a positive message about what is used in the product, rather than using a negative claim about what isn’t.

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