More than 60 per cent of Australians are more likely to buy food or drinks described as "natural", even though almost half of supermarket snack food products labelled as "natural" are considered to be unhealthy.
More Australians are steering clear of artificial sweeteners, sugary foods and drinks, and fatty meats and dairy products in the supermarket.
In an analysis of 331 supermarket foods marked with the words "nature" or "natural", public health group LiveLighter found 47 per cent did not fall into one of the five core food groups, as recommended by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
Lollies by The Natural Confectionery Co, chips by the Natural Chip Company, muesli bars made by Nice & Natural and tomato ketchup from Heinz were among the products highlighted for displaying the words "natural, nature or nature's" on their packaging.
" 'Natural' is used over such a broad range of products, it is not a helpful way of determining the value of a product," said Alison McAleese, LiveLighter Victoria campaign manager and an accredited practising dietitian.
"Just because something says it's 'natural', doesn't mean it's good for you."
Ms McAleese said the biggest difficulty was that both consumers and manufacturers had a wide range of views on what "natural" means.
" 'Natural' is not regulated as a word used on packaging. It might mean fewer ingredients in some products; for others it might mean less-processed or made locally ... but many of these products are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt," she said.
The Natural Confectionery Co defines itself as 'natural' for using no artificial colours or flavours.
LiveLighter found nine out of 10 products that used the word "natural" in the snack-food aisle were considered unhealthy.
These included muesli bars, snack bars, biscuits, crackers, chips and lollies.
Both consumers and manufacturers have a wide range of views on what ‘natural’ means.
Other products named in the report were Ajita's Vege Chips, Natvia the 100% Natural Sweetener and Altimate Natural Ice Cream Wafers.
In the case of Ajita's Vege Chips, a spokesman said the word "natural" was used to describe Vege Chip products in general, and also as a flavour in its range of products.
Founder of Natvia sweetener Sam Tew said the brands use of 'natural' is valid because it is made from 100 per cent natural sweeteners.
"The Vege Chip company does not use any additives like MSG or flavour enhancers derived from MSG."
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's food and beverage industry Food Descriptors Guideline says "natural" claims "imply that the product is made up of ... ingredients nature has produced, not man-made or interfered with by man".
Of the 97 ‘natural’ foods found in the snack food aisles, almost 9 in 10 were found to be unhealthy.
The Vege Chip spokesman said it was in this sense that it described its products as being "natural".
But Ms McAleese said consumers should look only to the ingredients and nutritional panel, and ignore words such as "natural".
Experts argue that the word 'natural' is used over such a broad range of products, it is not a helpful way of determining nutritional value.
"Using the 'per 100 grams' figure on the panel is the best way of comparing products. On the Vege Chips they are saying the serving size is 20 grams, but many consumers would eat more than a serving size," she said.
"Most consumers would be unaware that there are five servings in a packet."
Ms McAleese said consumers should also remember that ingredients on packaging are listed in order of amount.
"If you see sugar, fat or salt in the first few ingredients, you know it could be unhealthy."
Heart Foundation Victoria Healthy Living manager Roni Beauchamp said consumers seeking snacks should stick to the outer aisles of their supermarket.
"You will find an abundance of nutritious foods to snack on, like seasonal fruit, vegetables like celery and carrots, which you can cut up and enjoy.
Sam Tew, the co-founder of Natvia the 100% Natural Sweetener, said there needed to be a debate about what the word "natural" really means.
"A lot of people think 'natural' means healthy, that's the good old trick," he said.
"The reason we are so adamant with the word is that other sweeteners on the shelf are synthetically made. Natvia is the natural alternative."
Heinz, The Natural Confectionery Co, the Natural Chip Company, Nice & Natural and Altimate were contacted for comment.
THE SUPERMARKET FOOD AND DRINK PRODUCTS CLAIMING TO BE 'NATURAL'
47 per cent of "natural" claims were found on discretionary foods (snack bars and muesli bars, chips, crackers, biscuits and lollies).
21 per cent on dairy products – including yoghurt, milk and cheese.
16 per cent on meat and alternatives – including fish, eggs, nuts and legumes.
10 per cent on grain foods – including breakfast cereals, quinoa and bread.
5 per cent on fruit.
2 per cent on water.
1 per cent on vegetables – including legumes and beans.