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It’s no secret that consumer interest in natural and organic fare has risen dramatically in recent years. Social media aggregates show that each term has increased more than 300% in consumer discussions, postings and shares since 2011. A recent Technomic study found that a majority of consumers say they are more likely to purchase foods and beverages that carry natural (66%) and organic (51%) descriptors over traditional offerings. Further, about one in five also say they are willing to pay more for natural and organic options.

Why do natural and organic resonate so strongly?

The simple answer: Consumers believe natural and organic options are healthier. But of course, that’s not the full story. If it were, we would see the same enthusiasm for other claims that are perceived to enhance health even more than natural and organic, such as those related sugar, cholesterol or sodium.

The power of natural and organic claims comes from how consumers interpret and internalize the terms to give them a new and more personalized meaning. Based on more than a decade of both quantitative and qualitative research around these descriptors, we’ve found three key areas of underlying motivations for choosing natural and organic fare.

As a mental shortcut.

Today’s consumers demand transparency around each step their food takes on the way to their plate and feel they should be given all the information they need to make the best choice for themselves and their families. And the elements they want to know about continue to spread to new concerns across the spectrum of health, taste, sustainability, social responsibility and more. While technology can make that information—and sometimes misinformation—available at their fingertips, the actual ability to dutifully research these factors for every meal is not realistic for nearly all of today’s busy, time-starved consumers.

So, how can you give consumers that much information without overwhelming them? The answer: by using umbrella terms. Terms such as natural and organic convey many things to consumers by perceptually encompassing a wide variety of other health claims and benefits. Technomic’s recent Natural & Organic Multi Client Study found that these terms are associated with a range of attributes, from clean to additive-free, that allow them to fit consumers’ varying and fragmented definitions of health. Furthermore, as health and quality increasingly become synonymous in the minds of consumers, they not only serve as overarching terms to convey health, but to signal higher quality as well. In doing so, they give consumers an easy way to determine what will best fit their personal approach to health.

Figure 1: Which Claims Do You Associate with

Emotional resonance.

Health claims generally detract from perceived taste, and the impact is most pronounced for those claims highly correlated with health. This is a well-known, but crucial issue across foodservice, since health will always take a back seat to taste.

50% of consumers say low-sugar options do not taste as good.

Take the low-sugar claim, for instance. It’s one of the “healthiest” claims out of the 35 measured in Technomic’s recent biannual Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report. Fully, 83% of consumers say low-sugar options are healthier. But that association leads to a huge hit in the taste department; 50% of consumers say low-sugar options do not taste as good. On the other hand, nearly as many say natural (74%) and organic (70%) claims make an option healthier. But instead of detracting from taste, they are viewed by many to enhance taste by signaling fresher, higher-quality ingredients and bright, real, authentic flavors.

Figure 2: Taste & Health Perceptions

Natural and organic claims hit the sweet spot by making consumers feel better about their choices without having to sacrifice either taste or satisfaction. They provide a way for consumers to nourish themselves and their family with better-for-you options that they actually want to eat. Consumers also feel better about the sustainability and social responsibility implications of choosing natural and organic fare, even if they don’t fully understand the dynamics of those benefits. The power of natural and organic claims to signal health extends even to indulgent fare, giving consumers permission to indulge with less guilt.

A signal and building block for one’s identity.

Consumers increasingly prioritize wellness, as least as an aspiration. The way we approach healthy eating and the reasons behind it are becoming more important to our culture and identity, both in terms of how we think about ourselves and the identities we curate for others.

A few years ago, I illustrated this point in a presentation by showing the audience a picture of a man walking down the street eating a large hamburger, toppings dripping down his stubbly chin and on to his casual sweatshirt. Next, a picture of a lovely young lady in a white dress sitting at a table eating a salad. I asked them what they would think about each of these individuals. Their thoughts would most likely be similar to yours, and to that of most consumers. Most people don’t want to be viewed as the sloppy man. And while we’re on the topic, they also don’t want to viewed as the irresponsible parent who doesn’t consider health and quality in the foods and drinks they provide for their children.

The choices we make in regard to what, where and how we eat are becoming as important to how we are perceived as what we wear and how we look. A commitment to health has become a type of social currency that speaks to affluence, knowledge, and even care for people and the planet. Because natural and organic are now mainstream enough to be closely associated with health by most consumers, they can signal all of these things. These claims can contribute to a lifestyle that consumers can feel proud of.

...what, where and how we eat are becoming as important to how we are perceived as what we wear and how we look.

What’s next?

With these powerful motivators driving the market, further growth of natural and organic is expected, at least in the short term. Longer term, natural and organic may recede as trending health concerns, but these drivers will continue to influence next-level health and wellness trends and, ultimately, what Americans seek out, purchase and consume.