By making tenuous claims about a product’s natural credentials, manufacturers risked alienating consumers, said Steve Osborn, business innovation manager at Leatherhead Food Research.
Products associated with natural, such as the plant-derived sweetener stevia, were being misrepresented to consumers, he told delegates at a Health Ingredients Europe conference called ‘Natural and healthy, misleading or credible claims’ in Amsterdam yesterday (December 2).
Stevia was processed like regular sugar, but was being marketed to consumers as though it wasn’t, which could be misleading since many consumers associated natural with healthy, he added.
‘Going to backfire’
“Is this something that’s going to backfire?” he asked. “Anything that’s been processed isn’t natural and in reality, it’s only products like honey and raw milk that can be called natural – is it going to backfire on the likes of stevia, which is [heavily] processed?”
Yet Tom Simpson, a key account manager and food scientist for the Swedish-based Real Stevia Company, refuted Osborn’s criticism.
“I think we have done a good job to emphasise that it [stevia] has come from a plant-based source and the extraction process is similar to sugar,” said Simpson.
One-in-three people knew about stevia and its ability to sweeten and reduce calories, he added. The majority of consumers also believed stevia was the food industry’s solution to calorie reduction.
Most consumers were well informed about products like stevia and wouldn’t associate natural with healthy, Simpson said.
However, he admitted: “There are less informed consumers who would read natural and think that it meant there were health benefits.”
This was worrying, according to Jacob Thundil, founder of the coconut water brand Cocofina. “What’s healthy for one person isn’t healthy for another,” he said.
“Coconut water is healthy, but it’s high in potassium and therefore not healthy for someone with a heart condition.”
Natural was an overused term and was confusing consumers, he claimed. Products in health shops were littered with the word.
To make coconut oil, which was often labelled as natural, it had to be refined, bleached and deodorised, Thundil explained.
“But there are ways to make it sound more natural and I’ve seen one product labelled as ‘lightly steamed’ for that reason,” he added.
This sort of activity showed that there wasn’t enough guidance on what manufacturers could call natural, Osborn added.
“The UK’s Food Standards Agency’s guidance on natural and clean labelling is just guidance and not efficient and not a strong enough reference point for manufacturers,” he said.
“Ultimately, we have a paradox that’s being led by consumers who are asking for ‘healthy’, without knowing what they’re actually asking for,” he added.
Watch out for a podcast interview with Osborn later this week, in which he outlines the challenges industry faces in striving for clean labels.