'Natural' might be the most popular claim included across new product launches in soft drinks. In fact, last month at the CAGNY investor conference in Florida, The Coca-Cola Co cited 'natural' as one of its six key consumer preferences and trends - along with portion control, sugar reduction and other tactics - to achieve renewed growth across its portfolio.

Products claiming to be natural extend across all beverage categories, from plain spring water to 100% juice to carbonates containing cane sugar or plant-derived sweeteners. Unlike organic products, which require official certification, the word 'natural' can be a nebulous marketing term rather than a true regulatory label. The term 'natural', unless paired with other explicit benefits, does not convey a meaningful wellness message. As the claim proliferates on store shelves, evidence suggests that 'natural' beverages are likely to be subject to more scrutiny from both consumers and regulators in the near future. Recent data from Euromonitor International's Global Consumer Trends Survey clearly demonstrates the challenges posed by a consumer that is increasingly sceptical about natural health claims on food and beverages.

Trust in 'natural' is eroding fast

Despite its popularity in NPD and with marketers, consumer confidence in a 'natural' product claim may be waning. Across nine markets covered by Euromonitor International's Global Consumer Trends Survey, consumer agreement with the statement that natural products are "produced according to stringent regulations" has fallen substantially since 2011. Globally, among all respondents, agreement fell from 47.5% in 2011 to just 26.4% in the 2015 edition of the survey.

Percentage of respondents believing that 'natural' products are manufactured according to stringent regulations

(Source: Euromonitor International Global Consumer Trends Survey 2011/2015)

In the US last year, only 16% of respondents agreed that natural products were produced according to stringent regulations. This scepticism reflects a renewed debate within the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) about how best to control the glut of meaningless or misleading natural labelling on food and beverages. In November, the FDA sought public comment regarding the use and definition of the term, leading  to speculation that the US regulatory body may soon shift from providing a limited advisory definition ("nothing artificial or synthetic, including colours regardless of source, is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected there") to a more legally-binding claim requirement.

In the absence of firm requirements surrounding 'natural' products, external health advocacy groups have sought to create firmer guidelines for consumers. This has proved to be a challenge. The Organic & Natural Health Association abandoned plans to introduce a 'Natural Seal' in January this year, citing both the legal challenges in setting an appropriate definitional standard for the industry and the conflict created by the ongoing FDA debate. However, similar standards have been introduced for 'natural' personal care products by different industry associations.

A Wide Variety of Products Marketed as 'Natural' in US Beverages

Natural does not necessarily convey 'healthy' to consumers

Another key finding of Euromonitor's Global Consumer Trends Survey is that consumers do not consider 'natural' to be at all synonymous with - or indicative of  - 'healthy'. According to the survey, just 28% of respondents believed that natural products were healthier than non-natural alternatives.

This claim may be puzzling to beverage product developers. Plant-derived artificial sweeteners, including stevia and monkfruit, have been marketed as natural alternatives to synthetic, high-intensity sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose in recent sparkling soft drinks launches. The introduction of plant-derived artificial sweeteners was a response to dwindling low-calorie carbonates sales since 2010, with the industry hypothesising that consumer demand was reduced by an aversion to synthetic high-intensity sweeteners. It remains an open question whether so-called 'natural' sweeteners will have a positive impact with consumers. Early data is not promising: There appears to be little intrinsic value in natural ingredients as 'healthier' products without additional consumer education on the specific health benefits each ingredient provides.

Percentage of respondents believing that natural products are healthier than non-natural products: 2015

(Source: Euromonitor International Global Consumer Trends Survey 2011/2015)

Avoiding artificiality

If a coherent definition is possible for the term, a lack of additives might align most closely with current consumer expectations of what would constitute a 'natural' beverage. 56% of global respondents agreed with the idea that natural products should "not contain artificial additives". This is the highest global score of the several definition features tested in the survey.

Even here, the specific definition of 'artificial' additives is problematic. In 2013, a US federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against AriZona Beverages that claimed that the "all-natural" claim on its RTD tea was misleading, because the products contained high-fructose corn syrup and citric acid. Similar lawsuits have been launched against other beverage brands containing a variety of different ingredients.

Percentage of respondents believing that natural products do not contain artificial additives: 2015

(Source: Euromonitor International Global Consumer Trends Survey 2011/2015)

An 'artificial' ingredient may be as difficult to pin down as a 'natural' product. While brand owners (and regulators) continue to chase 'natural' as the key to winning - and retaining - the demand of the consumer, the term 'authenticity' may come closer to marrying the drivers of consumer demand with some of the hottest categories in soft drinks.

What might qualify as an 'authentic' beverage?

  • Slower, simpler production techniques, including cold pressed or raw juices or pour-over coffee brewing in contrast to machine brews
  • Easily-identifiable, unadulterated ingredients on a clean label, such as cane sugar soda or single ingredient sparkling water like La Croix
  • Products produced and distributed closer to home in smaller batches, like independent cold-brew coffee brands and craft soda

Last April, the CEO of PepsiCo declared that she had "never seen the consumer as confused as they are today" in terms of health and wellness decisions in food and beverage options. Confusing or spurious labelling and sleight-of-hand techniques in terms of natural product marketing only deepen confusion.

When trying to convey a more natural or authentic product to the beverage consumer, simplicity in terms of production, ingredients and distribution offers the best chance of success and the closest approximation of a 'natural' soft drink.