But, what do we really mean by “natural”?
Although consumers daily increasingly clamor for healthy and “natural” food, throughout the world regulations relating to this demand are rare. Sometimes, the perception of ‘natural’ varies from one country to another, according to consumer habits and psychology.
In the United States, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) defines ‘natural’ as a product containing “no artificial ingredient or added color.” A food that is “minimally processed, and in a way that does not fundamentally alter the product.” Therefore, animals reared with hormones and antibiotics can still be classed in the ‘natural’ category.
In France, consumers are more restrictive. They chiefly define natural by the absence of undesirable attributes, such as additives…and human intervention. A natural product is a product in a state as close to that found in nature. Consumers also take into account, as they do in other countries, the processing and ‘denaturation’ of the product. The more a product is worked on, transformed, the less it is considered to be ‘natural.’
In the United States, the consumer association Consumer Reports asserts that 73% of people surveyed look for products with the ‘natural’ label – a higher percentage than those who buy organic foods, which are normally more rigorously labelled*. This search for naturalness is not new; it began in the 1970s. However, until the beginning of the 21st century, it still represented a niche quality market, to which only a few consumers around the world had access. Today, it responds “to a consumer need for reassurance”, according to the analysis from Blezat consulting, Crédoc and Deloitte Sustainable Development in a study commissioned by France’s agriculture, agri-food and forestry ministries.
Natural products reassure consumers in a context of mistrust, where certain chemical substances have been implicated in the development of varied pathologies. The Yuka app’s success is proof of this. In 2019, it had already won over more than 12 million users in 6 European countries. This app enables users to detect additives in products on sale and to score their health benefits. Consumers are getting even more involved. They strive to become “consum’actors” and to search for “products that go above and beyond the organic label”, reports Agro-media in its ‘Naturalness, Clean Label and Organic’ edition. “From the harvest to the production process, from zero waste to recyclable packaging, all the boxes need to be ticked,” to satisfy consumers.
How do you gain the confidence of consumers in search of transparency, authenticity and quality?
As such, in the agri-food industry, respect for naturalness has almost become a prerequisite for all new development. “Natural” or “natural origin” claims, as well as “gluten-free, GMO-free, additive-free” labels are now increasingly found on manufacturers’ packaging, in order to highlight the transparency of their raw ingredients and their processing methods, and as a way to reassure their clients.
However, the multiplication of claims linked to product composition tends to produce the opposite of the desired effect with consumers. Informed and educated by government prevention programs, “consumers often find themselves disillusioned when faced with the mass of contradictory information to which they have access,” explains the sociologist Sarah Zanetti, in the magazine lsa.fr. “Consumers develop a deep distrust with regard to security guarantees highlighted by certain brands,” even sometimes perceiving the overabundance of claims as misleading.
As such, the agri-food industry finds itself in a pivotal period, in which “consum’actors” in search of authenticity, quality and naturalness want to take control over what they eat. To respond to their requirements, manufacturers must therefore make an effort to be transparent about the origin of their products; to strive to reduce additives and chemical inputs; to modify their processes to limit the degree of transformation, and to improve the nutritional value of their food products. In this context, the recourse to natural processes, such as fermentation, is a real advantage.
How can processes like fermentation provide a specific response for consumers?
Yeast extract is an asset for food product manufacturers who wish to adopt a “Clean Label” natural stance, because it is made from fresh yeast; an ingredient present throughout nature and used for centuries by ancient civilizations to produce bread or wine. The use of this traditional process tends to reassure consumers. Tradition generally represents a terroir. It is a guarantee of know-how, authenticity and origin; an intangible heritage that is passed down from generation to generation, and which has survived because it is significant.
Indeed, Lesaffre offers a wide range of natural origin food ingredients, which meet a need by naturally improving the taste and flavors of certain products, or by eliminating negatively perceived aftertastes, like bitter or metallic notes. In addition, improving the nutritional health of the population constitutes a major challenge for public health policies in France and internationally. In this context, yeast extracts and nutritional yeasts are the allies of choice. Developed thanks to the expertise of the R&D teams, these innovative products are capable of intensifying the perception of sweet and savory flavors, while reducing these enhancers in the finished products. In iced tea, they neutralize the deformed notes from Stevia or acesulfame K, without affecting the overall taste profile. There is also a renewed interest in numerous vegan products derived from fermentation. Finally, Lesaffre does not hesitate to reexamine some of its processes to reduce emulsifiers, even when they are exempt from labelling. This is always with the aim of bringing higher levels of satisfaction and authenticity to its clients in search of naturalness.
Naturalness, Clean Label and support for consumers
Three questions for Elodie Rubio, regulatory affairs advisor at Lesaffre
The “Clean Label” term associated with the naturalness of ingredients is increasingly used in the agri-food industry. What does it mean?
The term “Clean Label” is above all a marketing concept, born in the world of ingredients manufacturers and which refers to the wish to reduce the number of additives or to eliminate them to cater for consumer concerns. It is quite an old trend, which has been going strong for more than 10 years, and which has evolved to head towards the notions of “naturalness” and what is good for the consumer, or “better for you.”
As this concept is not regulated, businesses choose different angles of approach to satisfy the expectations of their clients. Some use claims including the word “-free”; gluten-free, GMO-free, preservative-free. Others aim to simplify their products and to reformulate them using ingredients that are uncontroversial, and which their clients would find daily in their kitchens.
Can yeast and fermentation benefit from the “natural origin” claim? How are they perceived by consumers?
Naturalness refers to a state as close as possible to that found in nature. In the world, regulations around this claim are rare. However, in France there is an active administrative doctrine, with a briefing note, dating from 18th August, 2009. It recognizes the possibility of using the “natural origin” description for products made from fermentation using microorganism cultures. The stance of the professional associations (EFFCA, COFALEC, and UK FSA Guidance*) on the “natural” claim also points in this direction. Yeasts and fermentation are part of consumers’ cultural heritage, as borne out during the Covid-19 crisis by the current increase in yeast sales to consumers who wish to make their own bread.
What are your internal recommendations to help consumers navigate the jungle of “claim labels”?
We are working with the administration in order to retain a positive approach and to avoid playing on the “-free” claims, which tend to introduce doubt into consumers’ minds. The idea is also to avoid excessive claims on Lesaffre product packaging. Instead, we continue to work on our product formulation to achieve a very simple ingredients list, which is easily understandable to our clients and can meet the Clean Label requirements.