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Sustainability and perceptions of naturalness: Consumer expectation versus market reality

Article-Sustainability and perceptions of naturalness: Consumer expectation versus market reality

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What do terms like “natural” and “sustainable” mean in the context of botanicals like yerba mate, or when we talk about synthesised vitamin D?

“Natural” claims on food products have a range of positive connotations: whether it’s organic curcumin or antibiotic-free whey protein, consumers expect such products to be minimally processed, fresh, and free from GMOs, artificial ingredients, and hormones. However, the label has no official definition, creating the potential for irresponsible marketing and consumer deception.

Sustainability, meanwhile, remains a hot topic: there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who have adopted a more sustainable lifestyle over the past 12 months, according to data from Deloitte, with 65% of consumers saying they take into account when buying a product whether it is made from natural materials or renewable resources.

Manufacturers, regulators, and researchers came together at a roundtable discussion at NutrEvent in Nantes to explore how stakeholders can exploit the “natural is better” trend without compromising on transparency.

Societal shift is required for sustainability to thrive

“In the EU, we probably have one of the safest systems in the world,” said Cindy Schoumacher, policy officer at the European Commission. “It's also thanks to EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, which provides science-based support on reports as well as risk assessment methodologies.”

While technologies such as 3D printing offer potential solutions for creating a more sustainable food system, Schoumacher said, “it's not going to happen overnight”. Not only are there are licencing considerations; change depends on the willingness of people to change their diets – a cultural shift that will take longer to establish.

She gave the example of a TV clip which showed a food truck serving up a pasta dish. Passers-by were lining up to try it despite not knowing what the ingredients were; that was, until they learned the filling was made from insects. After that, only one person said they would still be willing to eat it.

“I think it's a question of communication and education,” Schoumacher said. “But it's a question of generation as well.”

The objective should also be to diversify the discourse around sustainability beyond telling people to eat less meat, she said:

“That’s why we are trying to see other innovation, and also sourcing approaches, even to rediscover proteins that we already have and don't use enough, and experiment.”

Sustainable yerba mate: Local processing and third-party certification

Amandine De Santi, a business development director at Givaudan, a Swiss multinational manufacturer of flavours and cosmetic ingredients, pointed out that for a producer of raw materials, sustainability presents a challenge.

“In practice for us, as a manufacturer… it means for us to do things differently,” she said. “And you don't do it in one day.”

She gave the example of yerba mate, a caffeine-containing plant traditionally consumed in South America that is very on trend within botanicals.

“We source it locally, of course, in Brazil; we also produce it locally in our factory,” she said. “But we also have a full Fair for Life certification for our yerba mate.

“First of all, we protect the people that are living with growing the yerba mate, so we ensure that they have a decent income at the end of the day. We also give them visibility, meaning that for us, we commit for the next three years in terms of volumes, so we show them at least we will buy from them for the next three years, with certain quantities.

“We also protect the nature… [And] we have insurance that 5% of what we pay will go to local programmes, to help these people to evolve in their agricultural practice, to also help to invest locally.

“These are things that we now are committed to do as an industry – not just buy something, but think about how to buy it, how it is produced, and give this visibility ultimately to consumers.”

Defining sustainability: The case of vitamin D

It's a very broad topic, and one of principle – but what does “sustainability” mean in reality?

Elke Duwenig, senior expert in biotechnology at BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, said it was “really important” to talk about the definition because different players “have very different concepts in mind”. She added:

“Even [with] the EU Commission, it's not a harmonised, aligned process.”

She gave the example of vitamin D, describing how manufacturing processes had changed over the years, from chemical processes involving cytotoxic compounds through to precision fermentation and genetic engineering, highlighting the problem of scale.

“When a product is produced in a minute amount, can you talk about feeding the world?” she asked.

Schoumacher pointed to the EU Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy, which she said represented a major shift in thinking towards something “comprehensive and systemic enough” to take into account all actors of the food system.

“Before, when we talked about food, we talked about producers and consumers, and we tended to forget the in-between parts that [are] made up of lots of people who all have a role to play,” she said. “And so that's quite an important way forward and this is, I believe, the way to then have something sustainable.”

The objective of the strategy may be to address challenges relating to food systems, but she added:

“I would say [it] also has other goals. It aims to tackle the question of food security... And then there's also aims to reduce our impact on the environment and biodiversity.”

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Regulation as a barrier to innovation

Duwenig, from BASF, said creating a more sustainable industry was “really about efficient use of resources we have – produce more with less; less of everything”. But she stressed that the length of time it took for products to make it to market was the major barrier to there being more solutions available.

She said: “Seeing the landscape in research and development, we have all the solutions there. You can produce every single compound by microorganisms, for example. It's out there, but it takes a long time to [get to] the market… [There are] a lot of wonderful, innovative, productive strains out there… but not out there in the market because it takes several years of approval.

“You saw it with the [coronavirus] vaccine. It can be faster.

“My pledge to the EU Commission, and EFSA, of course, is really: speed up the process. It's not about sacrificing or compromising on safety… but you can speed up the valuation process a lot.”

Schoumacher agreed that time frames could be out of step with expectation but emphasised that thorough assessment was part of what made the EU framework so reliable, particularly in relation to so-called “natural” products.

“On the policy side, we have opportunities as well. But there are also challenges,” she said. “[P]eople tend to think that if a new product… come[s] from natural origin, it is automatically safe – but it's not guaranteed. It needs to be assessed, if somebody is doing this kind of work, before anything is placed in the EU market.”

Measuring sustainability

Duwenig raised the question of how to measure sustainability.

“It's very important to measure it because otherwise you can't optimise it,” she said.

She discussed different life cycle assessments and the sustainability score currently being developed for BASF products.

Bo Dohmer, nutrition and health manager at FoodDrinkEurope, a Brussels-based trade association representing Europe’s food and drink manufacturing industry, pointed to its Action Plan for Sustainable Food Systems, which aims to “tackle core challenges around climate change, packaging, and nutrition”.

She added: “We have six chapters, one of which is the nutrition action plan, and it considers both aspects on healthier living, but also sustainability – so, what we could do to be more climate-neutral on packaging as well.”

She said this would help the organisation to measure progress but added that the priority was “to communicate and educate”.

Dohmer said: “Processed food doesn't necessarily mean it's bad for you or worse for the environment. So one thing that we are doing is to… really educate on processed food – what is it, what are additives – and to show to the consumer [that we] cannot leave out all the ingredients which have functional and technological functions, because they're there for a reason.”