The natural trend has been spreading like wildfire throughout the U.S. and European packaged goods markets. The food and beverage industry has been especially affected, with large companies such as Hershey’s, Nestlé, General Mills and Kellogg’s promising to remove artificial flavors and additives from their products. Alongside this trend, harsh scrutiny has been cast on the use of artificial ingredients and flavors in consumer goods, with one survey reporting that over 82% of US respondents believe that foods with artificial ingredients are less healthy than their all natural counterparts .
The natural trend has been a powerful force in the US and European markets over the last decade, driven by increasing consumer demand for natural alternatives. Mintel announced “Artificials: Public Enemy No. 1” to be one of the key global food and drink trends for 2016 . The marketing service declared that the natural trend is fully established in the European market, with consumers now expecting natural foods and flavors rather than commending companies for producing them. The trend has gained its widest acceptance in the US market, where according to Instantly, many Americans believe that products are healthier when artificial ingredients are removed, even in unhealthy categories such as snacks and frozen pizza .
Having gained acceptance in the US and Europe, the natural trend is now emerging in markets around the world . According to Nielsen, the absence of artificial flavors and colors is very important for over 40% of global respondents to their Global Health & Wellness Survey . Additionally, the trend is not only limited to flavors. The natural personal care product market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 10% through 2019 .
High Demand, Little Supply
This has many of us asking, why do consumers prefer natural products? Healthiness would seem to be the obvious answer. However, studies have shown that even when it is demonstrated that an artificial ingredient is chemically identical to a natural ingredient, and proven to be just as healthy and effective as a natural ingredient, the majority of consumers with a preference for natural products still prefer the natural ingredient . Rozin (2004) posits that given the absence of a concrete explanation guiding these decisions, the preference for natural products appeals to a moral ideology and offers a moral satisfaction. In addition to providing supporting evidence to this notion, another study involving European participants shows that believing one’s food is morally superior can actually make the food taste better, providing positive reinforcement for future buying choices. This strikes on another topic, the often perceived tie between natural products and sustainability as an ethical buying choice. But is that truly the case?
Questions are beginning to arise concerning the potential available supply of key natural ingredients. As the demand for natural ingredients is increasing rapidly, so is our global population, which is expected to grow nearly 30% by 2050 to a potential nine billion people . Can supply keep up with demand?
Market Analysis: Vanilla and Vanillin
Over the past year, vanilla has been the most notable example of demand for naturals outpacing supply. Currently, less than one percent of vanilla flavor is sourced naturally from vanilla orchids . The market for synthetic vanillin is approximately 20,000 metric tons , while only 40 to 50 metric tons of natural vanilla extract are produced annually .
In addition to its many other uses, vanillin is used as a common chocolate additive to counteract the bitterness of cocoa. Over the last couple of years, Nestlé and Hershey in particular have announced intentions to reformulate its products to use only natural flavors and additives, creating a drastic increase in demand for natural vanillin and vanilla extract . This has caused significant price increases and has flavor companies scrambling for natural alternatives .
Ingredients, including vanillin, produced through a fermentation reaction by genetically modified yeast have been proposed as an alternative sustainable method for the production of key natural ingredients [8,9]. Unfortunately, public opinion of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) falls into the same category of distaste as artificial ingredients, and this may also have a negative impact on products manufactured using such organisms. Companies are pursuing non-GMO label claims with perhaps even more fervor than the all-natural movement.
A study by Health Focus International found that 87% of respondents considered non-GMO foods to be healthier than foods containing GMOs . The same study showed that concern over GMOs is even greater than replacing sugar, sodium, hydrogenated oils and artificial ingredients .
The Great Debate
In addition, current food and flavor regulations have been vague on their definition of “natural” as it pertains to ingredients manufactured by genetically modified yeast. In the United States, the status quo could be under further threat as the FDA sought public comments to review their definition of the term “natural” as it applies to foods and flavors in 2015 .
Artificial ingredients have a clear benefit when it comes to sustainability. They are created by combining molecular building blocks that are readily available and chemically replenish-able. They are also generally less expensive, easing raw material costs throughout the supply chain. When it comes to safety, modern flavor regulations are evaluating the safety of each ingredient individually and many are calling for very high purity requirements .
In addition, flavor companies are tracking ingredient purity profiles and using tight quality control requirements to ensure food safety throughout the supply chain. Straight out of a middle school science textbook, an artificial ingredient that is chemically identical to its natural counterpart will have the same chemical properties. However, whereas most artificial ingredients have high purity requirements and tight impurity profiles, many natural ingredients can actually be composed of hundreds or more individual compounds, with impurity profiles that are difficult to track as closely.
There are many questions left unanswered in this debate. Where is the breaking point for consumers? How much are they willing to spend for all natural versions of their favorite foods if prices increase drastically? Are they willing to see some of their most beloved snacks become harder to find, disappear from the shelves, or have modified flavor profiles if key ingredients cannot be sourced naturally?
Looking at our previous example, it would not seem remotely feasible or sustainable to replace all of the world’s synthetic vanillin usage with a natural, non-GMO, alternative. How many other irreplaceable ingredients will fall into this category? Will global food brands be able to keep their promise to deliver all natural products without having to compromise on flavor? Considering the many variables in annual crop returns, the world’s drastically increasing population, and the size of the emerging middle class in China, India, and other markets, is the decision to make all natural products truly sustainable?
Only time will provide the answers to these questions, but it is the author’s opinion that feeding our ever-increasing global population will become a priority in the near future. Research on the global food market’s potential and realistic ability to feed the world while providing sustainable, all natural products across the global food chain should be analyzed to see if it is even possible. At the same time, education on the safety and sustainability of artificial and other alternatives needs to be conducted and provided to the general public as we prepare to find ways to feed a rapidly growing global community.