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Monitor: Consumer attitudes on synthetic biology ingredients differ from natural products industry’s assumptions

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A survey on synthetic biology ingredients indicates natural consumers are more comfortable with the concept than many in the natural products industry might have expected. Brands may need to do more research on what this means for both marketing and product development.

Natural Products Industry Health Monitor, Jan. 28, 2020
 
A global lockdown might make weeks feel like months and months weigh like centuries, but business allows little room for ennui. As distracting as the daily inundation of the negative can be, the time to look forward is always now. In this feature, Informa Health and Nutrition sister properties provide that right-now-right-here update. Look for the Industry Health Monitor every other Friday to learn the major news that is affecting the natural products market immediately and the less obvious insights that could dictate where the market may struggle or thrive in the months to come.

Consider this: Natural consumers aren't scared off by synthetic biology

The conversation about ingredients produced through synthetic biology, or “syn-bio,” has barely begun even within the natural products industry, but a consumer survey conducted this week suggests assumptions inherent in that conversation could be wildly off target.

In short: Self-identified “natural” shoppers responding to the survey indicate they are more comfortable with less-than-natural ingredients than shoppers overall.

The New Hope Network survey defined synthetic biology as “a new genetic engineering technique producing nature-identical ingredients found in personal care, supplements, food and beverage products” and gathered responses from 1,000 consumers, 360 of whom said they primarily shop in the natural channel. Respondents were asked if they would purchase products made with synthetic biology ingredients and natural shoppers expressed more willingness in every single category. In some cases, the difference was substantial. For instance, 44% of all shoppers said they would purchase synthetic biology-ingredient-containing pet products while 69% of natural shoppers indicated they would. For supplements it was 53% for all shoppers and 73% for natural shoppers.

Attitudes around labeling were more evenly shared. The percentage of natural shoppers and all shoppers who want products made with synthetic biology ingredients was 56%. But natural shoppers were more likely to agree with the statement: “I would not be concerned about syn-bio ingredients and will continue buying products as normal.”

The survey results may come as a surprise to many in the natural products industry, which was largely founded on an opposition to synthetic ingredients; however, the takeaways here are not simple.

For starters, anybody looking at this survey should remember that it’s just one survey and it was deployed online. People could also take issue with the definition respondents saw, though it’s worth noting that 70% of respondents claimed they knew what synthetic biology was before they saw the definition given.

However one views these results, they are at the very least cause for more research. Synthetic biology is already transforming many industries and could be the next GMO for natural products. Understanding what consumers understand in this case is essential.

Though it’s not addressed in the survey, synthetic biology may arrive in the public debate with less baggage, or at least different baggage, than GMOs. Companies like Impossible Foods have put synthetic biology forward as a climate-friendly alternative to animal protein. People in the dietary supplement industry contend that synthetic biology  could take the pressure off rare plants gathered in the wild. Such claims could affect consumer perceptions and will undoubtedly shape whatever debate develops.

In the end the results of the survey may appear surprising, but perhaps they should surprise no one. Synthetic biology is a complex issue and raises questions that are not easily answered. As such, consumer sentiment is likely far from fixed. Much of the conversation in the media has been about benefits—no animals were harmed in the making of this burger—and the downsides could appear more hypothetical at this point.

But consumers are not the only ones who need to consider where they stand on synthetic biology. Brands, producers, service providers, trade agencies and lawyers might also need to assess their position. New Hope Network is still examining and defining synthetic biology as it relates to natural products and is developing a position on their use.

This survey doesn’t define where the conversation is now, much less where it might be headed.

Know this: Interest in better products is steady for consumers and investors

Consumer behavior indexes measure dramatic shifts in consumer behaviors as we march through COVID that is compared to a 2017 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. These indexes are assessed through monthly surveys of how consumers perceive their shopping behaviors. 

The natural products industry investment index measures dramatic shifts in investment activity as we march through COVID-19 that is compared to a 2019 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. Nutrition Capital Network monitors monthly financial activity in the natural products industry. 

Enjoy this: The secret ingredient

Consumer input on controversial ingredients can mean different things to different people. 

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