With no standardized regulatory definition for what food and beverage products may and may not be labeled as “natural,” some consumers are coming to the conclusion the claim is meaningless, said Arwen Kimmell, senior ethnographic analyst with The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.

“There is a lot of mistrust from consumers about the word natural,” Ms. Kimmell said. “They feel it has become a marketing term. They don’t really believe it when they see it on a product, so they are going to flip that product over and see if the actual ingredients live up to that ideal they are seeking — that it really is less processed.”

Even if a product does have ingredients consumers consider to be natural, if the product isn’t something they believe is inherently healthy, they will have trouble accepting it as natural. The Hartman Group said this may happen any time a product high in fat, sugar, sodium and low in nutrients that are perceived as positive is labeled as natural.

Frito-Lay’s Cheetos, for example, come in a natural variety, but consumers don’t believe it is a healthy and nutritious product in general so it doesn’t live up to their expectations of natural, Ms. Kimmell said. As another example, she said consumers don’t believe products such as peanut butters that are labeled as “natural” but still have added sugar and oil live up to what consumers believe a natural product should be.

According to research from The Hartman Group, consumers do believe products such as Hormel Foods’ Natural Choice deli meats, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Newman’s Own salad dressings, Stahlbush frozen vegetables and Original Tings Crunchy Corn Snacks do live up to consumer expectations of what a product labeled as natural should be. Ms. Kimmell said the reasons consumers gave as far as why they consider the products to be natural included that the ingredients are not manufactured, the products have no preservatives, artificial flavors or colors, and the natural components in the products have never been chemically altered.

“(Consumers) would like for natural to mean nothing artificial — no preservatives, short, clean ingredient lists,” Ms. Kimmell said. “But there is this divide between what they would like it to mean and what they assume it means when they see it on a packaged product. They don’t really believe it means anything on a packaged product without further investigation.”

While consumers are skeptical of the word used on packaging, they are seeking the concept they believe natural to be and are actively looking for products that are less processed. Consumers will turn over the product and read the label to see if it meets their definition.

Ms. Kimmell said there is some research suggesting consumers would prefer to see the term “100% natural” on products as it sounds more quantifiable instead of just “natural.” In addition, she said consumers like seeing specifics on labels such as no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. In contrast, she said consumers aren’t sure if “natural” means the product has no artificial ingredients.

Ms. Kimmell said she believes there will be an increased amount of private label products featuring a natural claim available in the future.

“Consumers are going to continue to seek these specific attributes … the idea of seeking fresher, less processed foods is going to continue to grow,” Ms. Kimmell said. “If that is actually the word natural or just the ideals — a short ingredient line and pronounceable ingredients — I think consumers are going to continue to seek out those products.”

Recent new products labeled as natural include the new Kashi TLC Bar in Cranberry Walnut flavor. California Natural Products is introducing CalNaturale as a consumer brand and CalNaturale Svelte as a sustained energy protein beverage. In addition, Stretch Island Fruit Co. has FruitaBu Smoooshed Fruit, which is a line of all-natural fruit snacks for kids, and Popchips is an all-natural popped chip company that has never-fried and never-baked popped potato chips it said is designed for healthier snacking.

Bill Patterson, market analyst with Mintel International, Chicago, said he expected the natural and organic market to suffer during the recession as many of the products have a higher price point, but that didn’t end up happening. He said the reason is many retailers have been producing store branded natural and organic products at lower price points, and there is an inherent demand from consumers for products perceived as “better-for-you.” He also said those who buy natural and organic products are buying into a lifestyle and will continue to purchase them even if the price is going up. In addition, some of the consumers who prefer natural and organic products might be in a higher income bracket to begin with and less impacted by the recession.

According to the Global New Products Database from Mintel International, there were 4,888 new products with natural claims in 2009, which compared with 7,063 in 2008 and 5,848 in 2007. The most popular sub-categories for natural products include savory/salty snacks, snack/cereal/energy bars, and bread and bread products.