Organic vs Natural ?

Written for the 2013  IFE website

 Q. With the organic industry facing a challenging time, are consumers more swayed by terms such as natural as purse strings get ever tighter? Do consumers really understand what natural means and how it is communicated on-pack? Is the lack of an industry-wide standard regarding what constitutes “natural” confusing consumers?

 A. As organic has lost market share (albeit only in the UK) the term natural has been pushed as a replacement. As a robust descriptive term natural is noticeably lacking – it has no universally agreed legal definition, it is unenforceable and ideas about what is natural vary widely from country to country. Consumers respond well to the description natural  without being able to articulate what is natural and what is not. Clearly a carrot is natural but is canned carrot soup natural? Probably not if you go by the Food Standards Agency guidelines.

 Natural suffers from other disadvantages. The nutritional desirability of many natural products is debatable. Deadly nightshade is natural (it occurs in nature) but is unlikely to be recommended by many nutritionists.  Sugar,  animal fat and alcohol are natural, but are not always a great choice for consumers. And that’s before we get into trying to distinguish between Natural and Nature Identical or Natural Flavour versus Natural Flavouring.

 Maybe the biggest problem with natural is the universal expectation that any new products offered to supermarkets will be all natural.  The food industry has done a great job of replacing artificial colours and additives with natural equivalents to allow that hallowed “all natural” claim on front-of-pack. As a result the “all natural” claim is no longer a way of getting a listing or driving sales. Maybe there would be more impact in launching Unnatural products.

 The irony here is that one category of food is always and absolutely natural. Every single ingredient is scrutinised and inspected to make sure it conforms with the necessary international legislation. The same legislation specifically prevents any artificial ingredient from being used. And the name of this category?  Organic