‘Natural’ is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Between 2005 and 2015, ‘natural’ was among the top 10 claims made about new food and beverage products. In 2017, US organic food sales grew 6.4%, totalling $45.2 billion, compared to 1.1% growth in overall food sales. We see these preferences not only in food, but in medicine and beauty products. Experimental data supports this: a recent systematic review of studies on natural preferences found that, food naturalness is a crucial component of food choice for the majority of consumers. This perception persists across time and culture. Consumers are even willing to pay more for natural, despite there being limited evidence of tangible benefit.
What do consumers think ‘natural’ means? When asked in an open-text survey, the two most common themes were absence of human processing or intervention, and absence of additives. Other research shows that chemical transformations are perceived as less natural than physical transformations, additives are considered less natural than subtractives and process is more important than contents.
These preferences make sense in some ways – naturalness could be a proxy for important features like food safety and sustainability – but they could also be problematic. Right now, technology holds the opportunity for us to produce more food in more sustainable ways. One example of this is cultured meat (also known as clean meat, cell-based meat or slaughter-free meat).
Cultured meat is meat grown for consumption from cells that were extracted and grown outside of an animal. This technology enables us to produce meat without growing and slaughtering animals. It is estimated to use 99% less land, 7–45% less energy, 82-96% less water, and produce 78–96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional farming.
Wide-scale uptake of the practice would limit the capacity for human exposure to animal-borne disease and spare billions of animals the suffering of being confined and slaughtered in the factory farming system every year. Thus, it could help solve a problem that is increasingly noted as one of the biggest environmental and ethical issues of our time.
We know less about what drives the preference for naturalness. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania propose that a natural bias can be attributed to both instrumental and ideational preferences: Instrumental beliefs of natural superiority include beliefs that natural things are more healthful, more pleasant, or that human interference always causes damage. Ideational beliefs of natural superiority are characterised by moral beliefs – that natural things are morally better – and a preference for the normative order, where natural things existed prior to human intervention. In the same study, natural preferences persist even when the natural and unnatural versions of products are specified to be chemically identical, suggesting that naturalness preferences tend to be ideational.
However, more recent findings suggest that even when natural and unnatural products are presented as chemically identical, people do not genuinely believe those distinctions – that is, they do not believe that natural things can be chemically identical to unnatural things. This suggests that our preference for the natural is not evidence-based. In order to logically justify a preference for naturalness, we must either prefer natural things despite knowing that they are identical to unnatural counterparts, or we must reject the belief that unnatural and natural things can be the same.
Which brings us back to cultured meat. Despite its benefits, consumer acceptance of cultured meat is limited – reported willingness to consume such a product varies between 11–65.3% across different populations. Concerns about the naturalness of cultured meat are consistently cited as a major barrier to consumption. One study even found that the risk of colon cancer from red meat was considered significantly less acceptable when caused by cultured meat than the same risk caused by farmed meat.
Cultured meat, along with other technologies such as genetically modified food (such as beta-carotene-rich Golden Rice), may improve the way we live, reduce hunger, reduce suffering and reduce our impact on the planet. However, our preference for natural things might be an impassable barrier to consumer acceptance. This is not an exaggerated concern: consumer perceptions of GM food have limited large-scale uptake for decades. Given the immensity of the food industry, it is crucial for psychologists and other researchers to better understand such preferences and identify strategies to address them.
Dr Matti Wilks is a postdoctoral research associate at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and will enter a new position at Yale University next year. Her research topics include the development of morality, moral reasoning, and consumer acceptance of cultured meat. She received her PhD at the University of Queensland in 2018. You can find her on Twitter @matti_wilks