BY: MACKENZIE HANNUM
The other day I was doing my doing my typical food science peruse of the offerings at a grocery store—looking for the new products, new categories, new labeling—and to no surprise I was bombarded with the word, “natural”. While that doesn’t come as a surprise because the “natural” movement has been going on for some time now, one thing that struck me is the number of companies describing their product as having a “natural taste.” Now as a sensory scientist I started to ponder this some more…last time I checked we had sweet, salty, sour, umami, bitter as the main five tastes, with the taste of fat and carbohydrates as potential ones as well. I don’t recall natural being on that list…but I give them the benefit of the doubt. They must be talking about the flavor it produces, a natural flavor, right? But even then, after thinking about it for some time, I was stumped. I thought to myself, “What is a natural flavor? What might that taste like?” And I truly was at a loss for words. When I first think of natural I think of the earth and nature…which leads me to think of a grassy flavor or even dirt/earthy? Now I don’t know about you but I personally don’t want my salami to taste like dirt.
So, if dirt isn’t the answer, what is this ever so coveted natural flavor? My next tactic was to put myself in the company’s shoes—they decided to make the claim to appeal to the consumers and relay the fact that their salami is not as “processed” as other conventional deli-meats (which is another opinion piece in itself) and has no preservatives so it has that “deli-fresh taste.” So first, as a consumer, this gives me the impression that preservatives must have imparted a distinct taste on the salami, and now with them gone it is a more natural taste. Now, putting my sensory hat back on, that makes me wonder if those same consumers would be able to pick out the natural salami in a blind tasting with the traditional salami that contained preservatives. Based off my experience with sensory testing, odds are slim to none that consumers would tell the difference if the test was blinded. Maybe the natural taste comes from the deli-freshness idea. Natural is often equated with being fresh. What does a fresh slice of salami taste like? To me, deli-counter salami is cut in thin slices, so that is what I think of when I think of deli-fresh. But what about you? You might think of something completely different.
Now, the more I’ve dissected this, the less I am convinced that natural has a true and consistent flavor. I think this idea of natural taste is subject to interpretation—it is relevant only to that one consumer. “Natural” to someone might mean something completely different than it does to someone else. Yet even with those potential stark differences in interpretation, it is still on the package and might be one of the reasons you end up buying that product. The brand is even called “Natural Choice”, suggesting it is a natural choice to select that product. How much of the word natural is driven by expectation and desire than it is for the actual taste? Because I’m not convinced there is one.
However, I know I am not the only consumer in the world and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Below is a link to a survey with one simple question: What does natural mean to you? Does natural have a taste?