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The Natural Debate: Your Consumer Is Your Regulator

By Harvey Hartman, Founder & Chairman, and James Richardson, Senior Vice President of Hartman Strategy

wheat in the field

In the wake of multiple lawsuits around the use of the term “natural” (against Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo, Goya Foods and others), it could be time for food companies to reconsider using it on labels and focus instead on new product design and more creative language. If they stopped using the phrases “100% natural,” “natural” and “all natural,” most natural-inclined consumers would have plenty of other cues for evaluating a product’s level of processing.

Although the term “natural” means something to people in everyday speech, they do not rely on it to mean much in marketing contexts. In their everyday lives, consumers see natural products as those that are fresh with minimum processing and the fewest number of ingredients. It connotes a lack of “bad stuff” in food. But on labels and in other marketing arenas, people are skeptical and want companies to demonstrate their “natural” bona fides. 

No one is waiting for food regulators to solve the quandary. They’re so far behind the curve that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration did not formalize a gluten-free standard until a good decade after the trend started accelerating in the mainstream marketplace. We wonder how long it will take for a GMO standard to be written and think Whole Foods playing regulator just might succeed, at least with consumers who care about that issue. 


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Meanwhile, activist groups and savvy attorneys are playing “gotcha” with a host of brands while, ironically, consumers are largely discounting those “natural” claims anyway. 

So consumers have taken it upon themselves to figure out what natural means to them. They look for a combination of subtle design cues, the absence of a brand that means for them “processed” or “junk” and the absence of well-known, sore-thumb ingredients. These cues are consumer-driven and have nothing to do with regulators’ views. Moreover, for brands that have developed a halo around natural (e.g., Kashi, PopChips, Chobani), we doubt any consumer today, including consumers new to these brands, would even notice if the claim were removed from packaging. 

The recent PopChips and Chobani settlements are the most revealing, because removing the natural claims from their packages will likely have no material effect on the trajectory of these businesses, both of which have many other hooks into mainstream food culture that are the envy of large food companies. These brands “feel” natural, because they are not full of blatantly processed additives and because their brands were incubated in the heart of the mega-trend toward fresher-seeming, less processed foods. They are not brands with a legacy of processing to overcome. 

Food companies of all sizes could save themselves a lot of trouble by letting go of the regulator-inspired habit of trying to make explicit “claims” about what are ultimately vague quality distinctions, such as “natural” and “healthy.” These vague buckets are ultimately symbolic and cultural in nature. Yes, they are slippery and constantly changing in terms of how consumers want producers to execute against them. But the answer is not to try to negotiate those slopes but rather for companies to roll up their sleeves and learn how to design food that communicates specific messages implicitly in the product design—and how to write more creatively.

Ultimately, selling less processed food is an art, not a feat of engineering. PopChips agreed to remove “all natural” and instead use “naturally delicious,” a phrase with no standard of identity and less likelihood of inviting another suit. The trend toward “simple” is another, very productive tactic used by more and more companies (although it may be hard for brand extensions of highly processed foods to do anything other than preserve their current consumers using this tactic).

Companies that understand how language, legacy (or a lack of it) and product design work together to form impressions of “natural” and “healthy” and other virtues will save themselves money and time in marketing and new product development. 

Harvey Hartman is founder and chairman of The Hartman Group. James Richardson, Ph.D., leads Hartman Strategy, which works with the largest and most respected global food and beverage companies to identify, create and seize growth opportunities that align with constantly evolving food culture.

Questions or comments? Contact Blaine Becker, Sr. Director of Marketing at:


Consumer Package Goods Retail/Shopper Insights Point Of View


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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