Organic is out, and natural is in—at least for some discerning, health-conscious consumers. Though organic has become more mainstream than ever, the label is actually being watered down and no longer has the same power and significance, says Amy Sousa, senior research analyst at The Harman Group and co-author of the research firm’s Organic and Natural 2012 Report.

Many people “even wonder if something that’s organic is really organic, is it really that much better,” she says.

This doubt means many consumers are less likely to shell out the cash to pay for items and products labeled organic. In 2012, 30 percent of consumers surveyed for the Organic and Natural Report said they were not willing to pay more for organic products (compared to 20 percent in 2010), while 44 percent said they would pay less than 10 percent more for organic products (compared to 52 percent in 2010).

Sousa notes that when it comes to dining out, many consumers relax their standards for the type of product or items they want to eat. “Moms who maybe are used to dining out or taking their kids for fast food, they don’t necessarily … worry about the same health concerns and organic concerns as they might be at home,” she says.

But for those consumers who are still conscious of and concerned about what they eat, natural products are now the star of the show, Sousa says.

“By natural, we are not taking about a marketing term just slapped on the front of the package, because consumers are absolutely not convinced by that,” she says. “But natural in terms of less processed, having few ingredients, it’s very pure.”

She says many consumers would now prefer to have a truly natural product than one that is labeled organic but is more processed.

“Organic is important, but it really comes down to ingredient lists more and more,” Sousa says. “Consumers really want fresher, less processed, more natural foods, and the more that ingredient list is clean, … the more enthusiasm consumers will have.”

But just because customers prefer natural to organic doesn’t mean that brands that offer organic products have nothing to gain. In fact, the Organic and Natural 2012 Report found that more than 60 percent of guests surveyed said their impression of a quick serve would improve if that restaurant offered organic products.

Organic definitely can lend a quality halo to food,” Sousa says. “But when it comes to actually pulling out your wallet and spending the extra money, that’s always a somewhat different situation.”

In general, Sousa says, specific brand practices that point to a larger social responsibility—whether it’s serving natural products or sourcing sustainable proteins—“actually can mean more than organic, and I think there is a response to more sustainable practices in quick service.

“The more specific the action,” she says, “the more poignant.”

By Mary Avant

Consumer Trends, News, Outside Insights