No legal definition of the term ‘natural’ exists. And yet, it appears regularly on food and beverage packaging, whether it be ‘100% natural ingredients’, ‘natural flavourings’, or ‘natural sweeteners’.
Consumer group Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) has long raised concerns not all claims are legitimate. The ingredients list may contain chemical additives and ingredients that seem natural, but are obtained by chemical processes, it argues.
From both a human and planetary health perspective, a lack of definition is impacting consumers ‘enormously’, SAFE Secretary General Floriana Cimmarusti and EU Policy Manager Federica Dolce told FoodNavigator.
What does ‘natural’ mean to consumers?
SAFE has conducted extensive research into the term ‘natural’ and what it means to consumers. According to the consumer group, a ‘natural’ product should not contain any synthetic substances.
“We’ve realised, that for European consumers, ‘natural’ means no chemicals,” Cimmarusti explained. When a consumer is led to believe they are purchasing a ‘natural’ product, yet it contains chemical additives, that is misleading, she continued.
Recent research conducted by SAFE has investigated the case of zeaxanthin, a type of carotene used in food which is available in both natural and synthetic formulations.
Back in 2018, the Commission adopted an implementing act to authorise the change of the designation and the labelling requirements for the novel food synthetic zeaxanthin. The Commission agreed on labelling the substance as ‘zeaxanthin’ only – removing ‘synthetic’ from the denomination.
This, Dolce explained, led SAFE to question why no ‘proper’ differentiation between natural and synthetic exists. Is there not an opportunity to determine a definition with which manufacturers, researchers, consumers, and ‘many other’ stakeholders could agree?
Cimmarusti agreed. “Imagine if you are a European consumer, you want to buy a product which contains zeaxanthin, but the word ‘synthetic’ [is not featured on-pack]. You won’t know what [the product truly] is.
“Why shouldn’t consumers know when an additive or when a product is of synthetic or natural origin? If it is too complicated to define natural, at least inform us when it is synthetic and not synthetic.
“It’s basic knowledge consumers need to have.”
‘Natural’ for a green transition
Misleading shoppers not only negatively impacts consumer trust and potentially human health, but can also have an impact on planetary health, according to SAFE.
The European Commission wants to reduce all misleading information connected to unfair commercial practices to help empower the consumer for the green transition. The consumer group ‘strongly’ supports such efforts and believes differentiating between ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ on-pack is part of the solution.
By advocating for the ‘correct use’ of the term ‘natural’, consumers will more easily be able to select products that are biodegradable, for example, Dolce explained. “Biodegradability is a condition that is strictly connected with a product being natural.”
Dolce continued: “If a product is biodegradable, and it is correctly advertised to consumers, then that for sure will have a positive impact on the environment.”
When a consumer sees labels claiming ‘100% natural’, ‘eco’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘biodegradable’, they will assume they are all equally monitored and authorised with no differences in their assessment, argues SAFE.
“For this reason, business operators using ingredients of synthetic origin – when a natural equivalent exists – and labelling it as ‘natural’ can seriously harm consumers’ purchasing choices and prevent the achievement of the Green Deal’s objectives.”
Resistance to the cause
If officially clarifying the term ‘natural’ appears to benefit both consumers and the planet, then why hasn’t a legal definition been determined?
According to SAFE’s Cimmarusti, it comes down to resistance from industry. “Some industry [players] don’t want to define what natural is,” she told this publication. As it stands, brands can ‘easily’ apply ‘100% natural products’ to their packaging to help increase sales, she suggested: “It’s a marketing thing.”
The Secretary General continued: “If we define it in a strict way, it will mean that a lot of industry [players] who use ‘100% natural’ on their products, won’t be able to use it anymore.”
But Cimmarusti was quick to stress that not all industry players fall into this category. Some, she explained, are using the term ‘natural’ for legitimate reasons. And for those, it is just as important that ‘natural’ be defined.
“When we did some research, we realised that some products were truly natural. It’s not that every single label was misleading, there were some that were very correct.
“Those [manufacturers] need to have the possibility to use ‘natural’ on their food labels, because it’s correct that they do so. There is a lot of effort, energy and expenses that go into products that are truly natural.
“Consumers need to know [that] and buy those products if [‘natural’] is important to them.”
SAFE is aware that defining ‘natural’ in food could have a ripple effect on other industries. The term is similarly overused in the cosmetics and supplement sectors, Dolce explained, as well as ‘many other’ different markets.
A potential obstacle to defining ‘natural’ is the complexity involved in adapting a potential definition to other contexts, she continued. “This should not be a fear, but rather an encouragement…
“It could be an incredible opportunity to [build demand] for products that are truly sustainable.”
To listen to Floriana Cimmarusti and Federica Dolce’s interview with FoodNavigator, tune into The FoodNavigator Podcast here or wherever you access your podcasts.