If It’s Natural, It’s Good…but What's Natural?

When a food additive was listed as an E number rather than a natural extract, or as meat grown from stem cells in a laboratory rather than traditional meat, they were seen as less natural and also more risky – even when individuals were told the potential cancer risk was the same.

This shows the importance of symbolic information and bias when making food decisions, they say. “Even if the new production method associated with the lack of naturalness offers more benefits, such as being more environmentally friendly and less harmful to animals, the same risk is perceived as less acceptable,”

According to the researchers, the main problems with cultured meat is trust – they don’t believe that eating it is no riskier than normal meat – and that the risk is new, unnatural risk while traditional meat is an existing and natural risk.

The experiment

In the first part of the four-step experiment, the scientists tested the perception of E numbers, used throughout the EU and Switzerland to denote certain additives. The generally negative consumer perception surrounding E numbers, however, mean they can act as cues for food that is artificial and unhealthy, even if this is not necessarily the case – E 100 is the spice curcuma, for instance.

Participants were shown three food additives on a screen (natural orange-red food colouring curcumin; sulphur dioxide which is used to prevent fruit from browning; and the flavour enhancer glutamic acid) and asked to say how natural each one was on a scale of one to 100. When they were shown the E number, perceived naturalness fell.

The researchers then wanted to determine whether people assume that food additives – either synthetic or plant-based – with negative health effects cannot be natural. Participants were told ‘Sugar-reduced jam contains the additive sorbic acid. This substance hinders the growth of yeasts, mould, and some bacteria’. Depending on which group they had been assigned, they were either told: ‘Sorbic acid is synthetically produced’; “Rowan berries naturally contain sorbic acid, but it is synthetically produced” or, in the natural group:“Sorbic acid is extracted from rowan berries.” In order to assess the health halo effect, researchers told half the participants that sorbic acid can cause a pseudo-allergic reaction.

For the consumers, the food additive obtained from a plant, without any possible negative health consequence, was perceived as the most natural.When a potential negative health effect was mentioned, the perceived naturalness fell for the natural additive, without having any impact on the synthetic one.