And they are not alone. As successive speakers at the above conference pointed out, regulators have not had a very good stab at defining ‘natural’ either, so in the absence of any legal definition, ‘natural’ has become synonymous with ‘clean-label’, that is, avoiding terms such as ‘hydrogenated’, ‘artificial’ or ‘modified’; removing anything that sounds like it belongs in a chemistry set and steering clear of anything that has been pilloried by the Daily Mail (fairly or otherwise).
The somewhat depressing aspect of all this is that whether the ingredients listed on your pack are actually derived from things that grow in the ground or swim in the sea doesn’t matter; what matters is whether they sound like they are. As Coca-Cola revealed at the same conference, most consumers now assume that anything with an E-number is by definition ‘artificial’ (could something called E162 really come from a beetroot?) and therefore to be avoided if at all possible.
A consumer survey conducted for National Starch a couple of years ago also underlined that in the world of food marketing, perception is everything, with innocuous substances from pectin to caseinate, beta-carotene and carrageenan (derived from citrus fruits, milk, vegetables and seaweed respectively) all receiving very negative feedback because shoppers assumed they were ‘artificial chemicals’ – and therefore unnatural.
Indeed, if water had to be labelled by its chemical symbol, food technologists would no doubt be instructed to source a more ‘natural’ sounding alternative.
No hairy chemicals!
But where did this paranoid distrust of mass-produced food and ‘chemicals’ come from – and should we care that consumer perceptions - however ill informed, are increasingly informing policy at some of the nation’s biggest food companies?
In practical terms, the drive to clean up food labels has prompted some costly reformulation, as rather than challenging consumer misconceptions or ‘Frankenfood’ headlines, many retailers have responded by simply banning the offending substances, often creating huge headaches for suppliers.
In cultural terms, such bans have had more far-reaching effects, as the repeated use of phrases such as ‘no artificial sweeteners’, ‘GM-free’, or ‘no nasties’ inevitably reinforces consumer perceptions that that the much-maligned (yet safe and legal) substances in question must be bad for you, or why remove them?
Moreover, the lengths to which food manufacturers have gone to create the impression that their mass-produced packaged foods have magically made their way from plough to plate with almost no human (and certainly no mechanical) intervention has only added to the paranoid distrust of ‘factory-made’ food.
And this does matter if they are genuinely serious about trying to present the food industry as an exciting and progressive place to work.
After all, it’s no good wringing your hands and wondering why the brightest and best graduates don’t want to work in food production or food science when your marketing department has spent the last decade peddling an entirely mythical image of how industrial food production actually works, which is at best disingenuous and at worse plain patronising.
Does a cleaner label mean it’s healthier?
Meanwhile, attempts by major supermarkets and caterers to link their ‘all-natural’ clean-labelling policies with the healthy eating agenda have been so successful that consumer research now repeatedly shows that shoppers equate ‘healthy’ with ‘natural’, which from a nutritional perspective, is highly questionable.
After all, removing artificial colours from a chocolate bar loaded with saturated fat does not significantly enhance its nutritional profile, but the perception is nevertheless that the more ‘natural’ Twix in question is ever so slightly better for you.
Arguably , the preoccupation with ‘cleaning up’ labels to make foods sound more ‘natural’ has also diverted attention, time and resource from addressing more substantive nutritional issues according to many dieticians, who see the ‘no nasties’ crusade as a convenient side show in the fight against obesity and type-two diabetes.
Time to bring science back to food marketing?
So when Ajinomoto finally lost patience and took Asda to court for tarring its sweetener aspartame with the ‘nasties’ brush back in 2008, many food scientists hoped this might finally force overzealous marketers to adopt a more scientific approach to food marketing. If you think aspartame is genuinely grim, said Ajinomoto, fine, provide the hard evidence to prove it.
But Asda, it quickly emerged, could not, given that the sweetener had repeatedly been given a clean bill of health by food safety watchdogs. Instead, its defence hinged on the frankly bizarre argument that the word ‘nasty’ was not in fact offensive at all, but merely ‘marketing speak’. To the surprise of many observers, a High Court judge agreed.
An appeal swiftly followed, culminating in a ruling earlier this month that has effectively overturned the High Court judgement and enabled Ajinomoto to continue to pursue its legal action.
And I for one am very much looking forward to seeing how this particular case pans out. Not because I have any vested interest in aspartame, or any strong views on the merits of natural versus artificial flavours, colours or sweeteners.
But if the net result is that firms are forced to think twice before they use emotive, misleading and potentially inflammatory rhetoric on food packaging, then it's no bad thing.
I’m also starting to tire of the ‘no hairy chemicals’ brigade; we’re all made of chemicals – hairy or otherwise. And as any toxicologist will tell you, some of the 'natural' ones can be pretty nasty too!
Elaine Watson is editor of FoodManufacture.co.uk.