This month is Modern Baking's biennial Supermarket Bakery Research issue. It is meant to be a barometer of how the industry is faring, and may provide more insight this year than in years past. While economists say the recession is over, the news seems to be slow in trickling down to consumers as spending, at least at in-store bakeries, is still tepid at best.
It may be this tentative spending that is the force behind one of the statistics I found most surprising in this year's survey — product offerings of organic and natural items are down, and fewer bakers surveyed are reporting sales gains for this category. As organic ingredients tend to be expensive, maybe this is one area where consumers feel they can cut back.
However, that seems to run opposite of what we see at our Healthy Baking Seminars. Granted, the seminars draw bakers that tend to serve a specific demographic, and it may be that this demographic's spending habits veer away from the general population's.
Or it could be that consumers are growing skeptical of manufacturers' claims of natural. This is a topic of conversation I'm hearing more often. No governmental regulation exists for defining what constitutes natural; it is left up to manufacturers, which means the definition is broad indeed. Everyone wants to appear as though they offer a more healthful product, which many consumers assume a natural product is.
I recently overheard a discussion in which a gentleman argued high fructose corn syrup is a natural ingredient. It does come from corn after all — how much more natural can you get? The FDA refers to natural ingredients as “ingredients extracted directly from plants or animal products as opposed to being produced synthetically.” The gray area occurs with raw materials that undergo processing to extract the ingredient, such as with high fructose corn syrup.
FoodNavigator.com recently reported that what consumers think of as natural is not the same as what manufacturers think of as natural. According to the report, consumers have a “holistic understanding of the term ‘natural,’ connecting it with ingredients of natural origin and healthier foods.”
However, manufacturers tend to focus more on processing and extraction methods to define the term; hence soft drinks marketed as “natural.” Really? Soda and natural don't seem to fit together in my mind. However, Pepsi seems to think so as it markets Pepsi Natural, which the company says is made from all natural ingredients, such as lightly sparkling water, natural sugar, natural caramel and kola nut extract.
As more seemingly unnatural products jump on the natural bandwagon, it creates a fuzzy line that many consumers are beginning to question. They are reading labels, and, unlike a few years ago, they understand what the labels say. So, if you market any of your products as natural, be prepared. You may see more questions coming your way.