The findings from MMR Research Worldwide (MMR) followed fresh calls from a report published early last month for manufacturers to work harder to reformulate foods to make them healthier.
Manufacturers could help lower the estimated £1.3tn worldwide cost of obesity by reformulating to lower sugar, salt and fat, claimed the report from the global management and consulting firm the McKinsey Global Institute.
However, consumers didn’t associate low sugar, salt and fat foods as being healthier, according to MMR.
‘Healthy is not associated’
“Healthy is not associated with the reduction or removal of a property from food, i.e. reduced salt, sugar or low fat,” it said.
Products labelled as ‘natural’ were more closely associated with being good or better for health, according to the 3,100 consumers asked by MMR.
“Natural not only has the most influence on healthy, it also stands alone, not being linked to any other attribute,” MMR said.
The survey results echoed recent research from Cargill and Tate & Lyle, which claimed that more and more manufacturers were formulating products with natural ingredients in response to consumer demand for clean and clear labelling.
Andy Wardlaw, MMR’s insight director, said: “Consumers mostly define natural by what isn’t in the product, ‘no additives’, ‘no colours’, ‘no preservatives’, ‘no e-numbers’, ‘no chemicals’ and ‘no artificial flavours’,” he said.
“Categories that are perceived as more natural or naturally higher in protein or fibre are also perceived to be healthier.”
Consumers had also become distrustful of products that weren’t natural, research from Canadean showed. They also struggled to see the health benefits of foods that contained synthetic ingredients, it said.
As a result, eight out of 10 Brits believed basic fruits and vegetables were better for health than fortified foods, Canadean added.
Despite food firms working to make products healthier by reducing salt, sugar and fat levels, or by using natural ingredient, more than half of the population was suffering from health message fatigue, MMR’s Wardlaw added.
They were also fed up of hearing contradictory advice, such as red wine being good for health one week and bad for health the next, he said.