How Worried Should the Organic Industry Be About “Natural Pretenders”?

Aug 7, 2019

New research suggests European consumers often regard ‘natural’ as more trustworthy than organic. so, how worried should the organic industry be about the “natural pretenders”? asks Jim Manson, editor of Natural Products Global.

Earlier this year Organic Voices, a coalition of US-based organic businesses, signalled that it was turning up the heat on natural brands who, it says, “benefit from a ‘health halo’ but don’t pay the entrance fee of organic certification”.

Sufficiently worried about the advantage gained by what it calls the “natural pretenders”, Organic Voices has put $1.5 million behind a campaign to cut “consumer confusion” between organic and other competing claims.

Tensions around ‘natural’ and ‘all natural’ claims (sent up by Organic Voices in an earlier series of mockumentaries featuring the work of the ‘False Advertising Industry’) have been running high in the US for several years, and been the subject of a number of class action lawsuits, mostly involving large multinationals.

These tensions are heightened in the US because products containing GMOs and growth hormones (either banned or restricted in the EU) are among those brandishing those provocative ‘100% natural’ labels.

Research in Europe

In Europe too, there is evidence that the organic sector is beginning to distance itself more from the natural industry, including the specialist sector. But is there any real evidence that the natural label creates “consumer confusion” in the European arena? A new piece of research by Euromonitor International suggests there is – in perception terms, at least.

Euromonitor polled 12,089 people around Europe to assess their understanding of organic (the data was included in a presentation at this year’s Organic Food Iberia, Naturally Good’s sister event in Madrid). Specifically, respondents were asked to declare whether they judged a range of 16 attributes to be a definition of organic, or of ‘natural’.

The outcome

Some of the findings are concerning for the European organic community. The poll showed that European consumers often find perceive ‘natural’ as more trustworthy than organic. For example, more consumers in Europe regard ‘chemical free’, ‘does not contain artificial additives’, ‘does not contain GMOs’, and ‘respects animal welfare’ as definitions of ‘natural’ than people who say they are definitions of organic.

Arguably these findings can be viewed from different perspectives. They can be seen as further reminder of the challenge – and at some level, the failure – to explain the multiple benefits of organic. But some will view them as worrying confirmation that the natural label – usually undefined in law, and subject to minimum oversight – is creating confusion for consumers, and in doing so playing directly into the hands of big food companies unwilling to commit to rigorous ethical and environmental standards.

Organic interests in Europe are unlikely to be well served by a litigation driven response. Instead, better communications and more targeted work at the food and food labelling policy level will be needed to strengthen trust in organic, extend consumer support for it, and limit indiscriminate or misleading use of the natural label.

“Whoa, a barn! – works every time”. A scene from The Natural Effect, a video commissioned by US organic coalition Organic Voices

About the author: Jim Manson

Jim Manson is editor-in-chief of Diversified Communications UK‘s natural and organic publishing portfolio. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, and World Bank Urban Age.

About Natural Products Global

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