Research conducted by the soft drinks giant had revealed that consumers had a "holistic understanding" of the term 'natural', connecting it with ingredients of natural origin, and healthier foods, Coca-Cola Europe functional ingredients and external technology acquisition director Dr Michele Kellerhals, told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
By contrast, definitions of natural in regulatory guidance documents hinged on technical and arcane arguments over processing and extraction methods that were meaningless to the average consumer, suggested Kellerhals."The consumer has a broad, holistic understanding of natural, but regulators are narrowing the field."
In the absence of a legal definition of natural (with the exception of natural flavourings – which are defined in EU law), many European manufacturers relied on guidance produced by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), which had proposed a very narrow definition of the term 'natural' that excluded several ingredients derived from fruits and plants including inulin (a fibre from chicory roots) and orange juice concentrate, he said.
As a result, when it came to soft drinks, "all natural" or "100% natural" claims were only feasible on not-from-concentrate juices and mineral water, said Kellerhals, who was speaking at a Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) conference on natural trends in food and drink yesterday.
"In the legal sense, even beet sugar isn't natural although consumers probably think it is."
Coca-Cola research also suggested that the average punter did not realise that food colours with E-numbers could be of natural origin, and instead assumed that anything with an E-number was by definition artificial, he observed. "The E-number is not the best way to communicate natural colours."
Given the challenges and costs associated with sourcing large quantities of natural colours for high-volume soft drinks brands such as Fanta, Coca-Cola was also working hard to identify alternative methods of producing natural colours via fermentation, he added.
"But the big question is: will they be classified as natural or artificial? It's really not clear at the moment."
Leatherhead Food Research regularly received calls from food and drink manufacturers asking whether they were allowed to use the term 'natural' on their packaging, said Dr Mary Gilsenan, head of regulatory services at LFR.
"We are asked about this all the time, but as there is no overarching legal definition of natural, it's a bit of a grey area. If you look at the FSA guidance, it says that certain processing techniques such as pasteurisation, bleaching and hydrogenation are not considered natural, whereas smoking, baking, distillation for example are OK."
While the FSA guidance was not a legal document, it did carry a lot of weight, she added. Indeed, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority had recently referred to it in some "hugely controversial" judgements, she noted.
"This is a real grey area. The interesting thing is that the FSA document repeatedly refers to consumer perceptions of natural, but there has actually been very little research into what consumers actually think natural means in relation to food and drink.
"So I very much welcome Coca-Cola's research. It would be really helpful if it were published."