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Where Organic Ends and Natural Begins

The natural and organic landscape is a confusing place to navigate. Littered with a vast array of symbols, certifications and labels it can be hard to determine how a product makes it from the grocery store shelf to the home pantry. Over the years, we’ve watched consumers move organic into the mainstream and listened as they shared their lack of confidence in the term “natural” on product packaging. And yet, they continue to be engaged in both realms: natural and organic.

How do consumers really understand the similarities and differences between Natural and Organic? Are they the same? Is there overlap? Does one end where the other begins? We addressed these issues in our newly published syndicated study, Beyond Natural & Organic 2010, with both qualitative and quantitative research to really dig deep into these issues and make sense of the complexity.

What we found is a significant overlap in the ways that consumers think about organic and natural. Our nationally representative survey illustrated that the top six associations consumers have with natural and organic are the same with the same rank order:

Organic vs. Natural

At the Hartman Group we segment consumers based on their involvement in a World. The World of Organics includes four segments with the Core being the most involved, the Periphery the least involved, and the Inner and Outer Mid-Level having consumers that are somewhat involved. Depending on their segment within the World of Organic, a consumer will have different levels of knowledge regarding natural and organic, and will be driven by different dimensions of consumption when they make purchase decisions ranging from price and comparability to authenticity and environmental impact.

Organic Segments

Organic, Origin and Processes

There is overlap in understandings of natural and organic by consumers in every segment. Organic and natural are not just seen as overlapping concepts, but they are seen as complementary attributes by consumers all the way from the Periphery to Core. Even consumers with minimal involvement in the World of Organics make a distinction between natural and organic in terms of attributes related to origin versus attributes related to production and processing. “Organic” is understood as pertaining to what happens to food at origin (e.g., the farm, the plant, the animal), while consumers see “natural” as describing what happens (or doesn’t) to food after it leaves the origin in terms of production and processing.

Consumers use the term "organic" primarily to refer to farming practices and in its simplest form organic means “grown without pesticides.” In addition to absence of pesticides, organic can also mean a variety of other things to consumers in different segments as well as for a variety of categories. Organic is also associated with absence of herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics as well as genetically modified foods. All of these attributes are connected with the growing process and are applied to whole foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, etc.). Consumers more strongly associate these attributes to organic than to natural.

Enter Natural

Consumers are seeking an ideal of natural that would mean that the food and beverages they buy are healthy, whole, real, and minimally processed. Natural is understood as what happens to the food after it is grown, specifically regarding the reduction of processing steps. Consumers more strongly associate “No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives” with natural than with organic, illustrating the stronger connection between natural and production and processing. While consumers associate “natural” with an ideal of minimal processing, they do not believe that the word “natural” ensures that foods and beverages live up to the ideal that they are seeking. Consumers across the World of Organic, regardless of their segment, see “natural” as a marketing term, meaningless alone. The word natural on a product may encourage them to investigate the product more, but is not enough alone to ensure that the product lives up to their ideal. “100% natural” is preferable to other variations such as “natural,” “all natural,” but is still something that requires further investigation by consumers.

There are a variety of attributes that are necessary to communicate that a product is truly less processed and so lives up to the consumer ideal of “natural,” and they look to the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list to identify if a product is truly natural. Consumers first look at the length of the ingredient list. For consumers, truly natural products will have a relatively short ingredient line. Those few ingredients should also be recognizable, real ingredients. Consumers are looking for items that they know and are the kinds of items they have in their own kitchens. They are also looking at an ingredient list to be sure their natural products are free of unnecessary additives and fillers, and have no artificial ingredients including preservatives, colors and flavors. Any ingredient that is hard to pronounce is a red flag for consumers.

Consumers have a variety of natural products in their homes, including “natural” versions of traditional products (e.g., Cheetos). In addition to consumers wanting natural to mean less processed, consumers also want natural products to be healthy. But when a product labeled natural is clearly not a healthy choice it raises skepticism about all products labeled natural. Specifically, products that are high in fat, sugar and/or sodium are perceived as being unnatural, regardless of the words on the package. When consumers investigation of the ingredient line and nutrition facts panel prove that a product does not live up to their ideal, they are frustrated and feel betrayed, and their mistrust of items labeled natural grows. “Natural” is not enough.

So, what can we learn from all of this? For consumers there is significant overlap between the attributes they associate with natural and organic, but it is important to understand the distinction consumers make through associating organic with farming and natural with production and processing. When messaging organic be sure to acknowledge the connection to the farm and farming methods. Communicate stories through words and images that give the consumer the link to the farm they are looking for when they purchase organic foods and beverages. For natural products it is essential to live up to the ideal of natural that consumers are seeking regarding production and processing. To the untrained eye, for example, the product may be a box of cereal, but to the average consumer it is a field, a farm, a factory. Be sure that your natural foods and beverages have an ingredient list and nutrition facts panel that align with the consumer ideal: Healthy choices with a short, recognizable ingredient list with nothing artificial, no preservatives, additives or fillers.

For more information on natural, organic and beyond see our Beyond Natural & Organic 2010 report.


Consumer Package Goods Organic/Natural


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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