12 January - 20 June 2016

The importance of food naturalness to consumers

In recent decades consumers have been found to have a strong preference for things that are natural. A review published in Trends in Food Science & Technology has examined the importance of food naturalness among consumers.

In recent decades consumers have been found to have a strong preference for things that are natural. A review published in Trends in Food Science & Technology has examined the importance of food naturalness among consumers. The review cites a large study conducted across multiple countries which found that the most desirable food attributes wanted by consumers are freshness, naturalness, and minimal processing, plus another study which showed food naturalness is a “decisive buying incentive”. 

Roman et al. carried out a systematic review of current scientific articles, and selected 72 that related to the research questions they wanted to address.  These questions were: how has the perceived importance of naturalness for consumers been defined and measured, to what extent is perceived naturalness important to consumers, are there individual differences regarding the importance give to food naturalness that can be explained by consumers’ characteristics, and do consumer attitudes towards food naturalness influence their intentions and behaviour?

The authors report that there were various definitions for food naturalness including foods that do not contain additives and are unprocessed, organically grown food, and one study by Rozin et al defined natural “principally by the absence of certain negative features (e.g. additives, pollution, human intervention), rather than the presence of certain positive features.”  As naturalness is defined in many different ways, Roman et al. analysed the content of the selected studies and classified naturalness according to three related categories: how the food is grown (organic local), the way the food is produced and processed (ingredients used including free from and presence of natural ingredients, and production process), and the properties for the final product (healthiness, tastiness, freshness and eco-friendliness). 

When the scientists reviewed how consumers’ perceived importance of naturalness in foods, the team found that the studies included in the review used different scales to measure the importance of naturalness of food, but came to the general conclusion that “independent of country and year of the study, naturalness was considerably important for consumers.” 

The team found that a large number of studies investigated the perceived naturalness of food and consumers’ age and gender.  Roman et al report that these studies showed that perceived naturalness was important to “older and female consumers compared with their younger and male counterparts”.  Health interest was also positively related to naturalness in food, “whilst attributes towards chemical, novel technologies and functional foods were negatively correlated.” However, a study in Spain found that “perceived naturalness of functional foods increased their consumption.”

The team examined whether food naturalness influences consumers’ behaviour and found that consumers who prefer organic food place particular importance on the naturalness of the product.  The importance of food naturalness was also found to influence the intention to eat foods that were classified as environmentally friendly, fresh, natural, local tradition, and lower in calories. 

In discussion, the scientists discuss how the importance of naturalness for consumers has key implications for the food industry, including the development and marketing of foods.  They note that “foods that are not perceived as natural may not be accepted by the majority of consumers in most countries.”  Due to the lack of naturalness, they suggest that food technologies such as 3D printing technology for food, and cultured meat may provide a challenge for the food industry to obtain consumer acceptance. They note that companies need to develop foods that are perceived as natural by consumers.

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