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Natural vs. synthetic: ‘The consumer will always choose the natural product’

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 13-Feb-2013

Natural colours can create a market advantage, says Horan
Natural colours can create a market advantage, says Horan

Switching to natural colours can be an important product differentiator, as consumers around the world will always choose a natural product when given the option, says ingredient firm Chr. Hansen.

Speaking to FoodNavigator, Chr. Hansen beverage business development manager Dermot Horan said that reformulating with natural colours could be a relatively low-cost way to make a big marketing impact, at about €1 per 1,000 litres in the case of an average soft drink.

Colour is immediate, whereas it is not until a consumer gets home that they discover the taste or the sound of the crispness of a product, he says.

“The colour and visible impact is one of the primary reasons why someone might choose a product or not,” he said. “…Given the choice, if there are two products on the shelf and one says clearly that it is coloured with a natural colour from a fruit or vegetable extract, and one makes no such claims, the consumer will always go for the more natural product.”

According to market research organisation Mintel, launches of naturally coloured food products grew 13% from 2011 to 2012, with emerging markets leading the way, including South America and Asia, although the market for naturally coloured products is still growing at a more moderate rate in Europe and North America.

“In the EU, a lot of those big brands have converted in the last five or six years,” he said. “That has made a level playing field somehow.”

The Southampton study: Do consumers care?

Natural colouring was given a major boost in the EU in 2007 when a study from the UK’s University of Southampton linked six artificial colours with hyperactivity in children. The European Food Safety Authority assessed the study and found no reason to revise its opinion on the safety of the colours, but lawmakers decided to mandate a warning label on products across Europe all the same.

Horan said that although this decision accelerated product reformulations, the details of the study were irrelevant to consumers.

“Companies before 2007 were already going down the road of all natural,” he said.

When the Southampton study came out, Horan said consumers were appalled to think that manufacturers had natural options available to them, but they still chose to use synthetic colours.

“But the merits of the study were not discussed by the consumer.”

Emerging markets & first movers

In Asia and South America, where the market for natural colours is fastest growing, many of food manufacturers are looking to gain the first mover advantage, he says.

“They are saying, ‘we don’t have this regulatory drive, but if we are a first mover then we can get the lion share.’

“The consumer demand is there. People will always want to choose the more natural product. There is no ubiquitous regulation like there is in Europe, but manufacturers are seeing that there is a huge marketing value.”

Getting the message across

Communicating the message to consumers is critical, Horan says, adding that Chr. Hansen has worked on converting thousands of products to natural colours.

“When a manufacturer or marketing brand owner chooses to market ‘free from artificial colours’ or ‘natural colours’ in a bright way front of pack, it is more successful than when it is only on the back of the packaging. More and more consumers are turning over the package, but it is on the front of pack where the real communication is.”

Horan said that the company works directly with companies on reformulating with natural colours in order to pinpoint which colour is best suited to each application.

“We have made significant advances in formulation of our colours,” he said. “…The more we learn about this, the better the colour formulation we create.”

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