Natural is now a widespread food label term, but how much does that term affect your shopping habits? A team of researchers in Europe decided to analyze all the studies they could find focused on consumers’ preference for food naturalness—amounting to 72 studies in 32 countries involving more than 85,000 consumers—for patterns in how important “naturalness” is for consumers.

The researchers set out to answer four key questions: How has the perceived importance of naturalness for consumers been defined and measured; to what extent is perceived naturalness important to consumers; are there individual differences regarding the importance given to food naturalness that can be explained by consumers' characteristics; and do consumers' attitudes toward food naturalness influence their intentions and behavior?

How is natural measured?

The researchers found, first and foremost, that “natural” has been defined and measured in a variety of different ways. They classified these approaches using three main categories: how the food is grown (farming practices, with emphasis on organic and local production); what technologies and ingredients are used during processing; and the properties of the final product, referring mainly to things like healthiness, tastiness, freshness and eco-friendliness.

The second category is worth explaining in a bit more detail. Here's how the authors describe it:

The second category refers to post-harvest food processing and distinguishes between the ingredients used and the production process itself. As for the ingredients, consumers seem to give more importance to the absence of certain negative elements (mainly additives but also preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, chemicals, hormones, pesticides and genetically modified organisms) than to the presence of certain positive elements (natural ingredients). The products should be as minimally processed as possible, even resembling homemade foods. Using traditional food production methods is perceived as preserving the food's natural state.

Importance of natural: Not where, but who

The researchers found the answer to their second question—to what extent is perceived naturalness important to consumers—is that the value of natural is pretty universal. Naturalness turned out to be “considerably important” for consumers independent of the country being studied and the year in which the study was conducted.

Looking at sociodemographic factors that influence the perceived importance of natural, they found only two variables that were consistently significant: female and older consumers tended to place greater importance on naturalness than their male and younger counterparts.

Some of the studies showed a correlation between consumers valuing naturalness and their intentions—to eat foods that are local or traditional, fresh, more environmentally friendly and lower in calories. There was also a positive association with intake of healthy, organic and traditional foods; people who value naturalness also reduced their consumption of unhealthy and convenience foods. Furthermore, while there was a negative perception of novel food technologies among consumers valuing natural, one study in Spain found that perceived naturalness in functional foods actually increased their consumption.

What does "natural" mean to you and how important is it when you make a food decision?