Currently browsing posts about: Natural

Dec 10 2013

Yes, one more post on the meaning of “natural”

At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.”  I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August).  Wrong.

Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the  Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”

The FDA

In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The USDA

The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

The ATF

This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes.  Its “ATF Ruling 85-4″ does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.

(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”

(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.

(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.

I am not making this up.

CSPI thinks it’s time to phase out the use of “natural.”  OK by me.

Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):

In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.

Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.

ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.

This explains the split in 2002 (click here).

Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!

Sep 1 2013

“Natural” on food labels? Ain’t necessarily so…

It’s the first Sunday of the month and time for my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.  In this one, I deal with the annoying “natural” on food labels, a term that the FDA prefers not to define.

Q: I am doing legislative research on food policy for one of my state’s senators on the definition of “natural.” As things stand, it’s difficult for consumers to understand what “natural” means on food labels. How should the FDA define this term so it is accurate and not misleading?

A: I was traveling in New England when your question arrived, and it sent me right to the nearest Hannaford supermarket. Hannaford makes this research easy. Sections everywhere in the store are labeled “organic and natural.”

Organic is no problem. Certified organic products must be made with ingredients raised or grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic modification.

But what are we to make of Honey BBQ All Natural Potato Chips containing 20 ingredients, among them monosodium glutamate, yellow food color, and undoubtedly genetically modified corn and soy, but “no hydrogenated fats and gluten free”? Or Healthy Natural Dog Food containing meat by-products and other such things but “no artificial preservatives, colors or fillers”?

The Food and Drug Administration is not much help. Its answer: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA … has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

If you have made it through all the not’s in this non-definition, you can begin to understand how the FDA can allow high-fructose corn syrup to be “natural.” Even though enzymes, synthetic or not, are required to convert cornstarch to this mixture of glucose and fructose, it does not contain artificial colors or flavors.

But the products I mentioned do. Yellow No. 5 is an artificial color. You must assume that the corn or soy in any “natural” product is genetically modified unless the label says GMO-free or Certified Organic. You may be someone who has a hard time considering GMO ingredients “natural.”

In the last decade, new products marketed with “natural” claims have proliferated, and it’s easy to understand why. Marketers love the term. “Natural” sells products, not the least because consumers consider it a synonym for healthful and, often, for organic. Anyone would rather buy “100 percent natural seltzer water” – “calorie-free, no sugar, no sodium, gluten-free” (things never found in water) – than plain seltzer.

While “natural” does not necessarily mean “healthy” or even “healthier,” it works splendidly as a marketing term and explains why many junk-food manufacturers are switching from expensive organic ingredients to those they can market as “natural.”

The FDA isn’t fixing this situation because, according to a statement in response to a petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, it’s “not an enforcement priority.”

Manufacturers of highly processed foods could not be happier with this nondecision.

In the absence of regulation, enter litigation. In recent years, advocacy groups have filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to ban “natural” claims on foods containing ingredients that seem unnatural, especially those genetically modified. Judges tend to say it’s the FDA’s problem and are calling on the agency to define the term.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat and dairy products, has attempted to clarify what it means by “natural.” Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” when they are minimally processed and have no artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals produced with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics and no animal by-products.

How about all of the above? And if the public really can’t tell the difference between “natural” and “organic,” the closer the definition of “natural” is to that of “organic,” the less confused they will be.

Perhaps you could advise the senator to begin with the organic standards. And then toss in working definitions that exclude anything synthetic, artificial and more than minimally processed.

You should expect food industry lobbying against this idea to be fierce. But the public will be better served if the compromises in defining “natural” come at the end of the negotiations rather than at the beginning.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Jan 11 2013

The Leanwashing Index: Yes!

I was unfamiliar with the Leanwashing Index, but am delighted to learn about it.  EnviroMedia launched it in 2012 to discourage advertisers from using absurdities to push products.

EnviroMedia explains the inspiration for the Index: the appearance of the word “Superfood” on Lake Superior State University’s 38th annual List of Words to be Banished.

Here’s the 2013 Leanwashing list:

  • Natural
  • Made With
  • Whole Grains
  • Light
  • 100 Calorie

Away with all of them!  (I can think of plenty more.  Send your suggestions to the site.)

Here’s a prime example:

And while we are on the subject of whole grains, you might want to take a look at Colbert’s latest “Thought for Food.”

Enjoy the weekend!

Oct 4 2012

FTC issues advice on “eco” claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for regulating advertising, has just revised its “Green Guide” to eco-labeling.

The FTC warns that

  • Explanations of specific attributes, even when true and substantiated, will not adequately qualify general environmental marketing claims if an advertisement’s context implies other deceptive claims.
  • Marketers [are] not to imply that any specific benefit is significant if it is, in fact, negligible.
  • If a qualified general claim conveys that a product is more environmentally beneficial overall because of the particular touted benefit, marketers should analyze trade-offs resulting from the benefit to substantiate this claim.

The FTC did this, according to the New York Times, to reduce the confusion caused by the proliferation of eco-labels.

In surveying consumers, the F.T.C. found that products that were promoted as “environmentally friendly” were perceived by consumers to have “specific and far-reaching” benefits, which, the government says, they often did not have.

“Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate,” the commission said.

No wonder the public is confused.  The Consumer Reports Greener Choices index of eco-labels goes on for pages, and the international EcoLabel index currently lists 432 icons and programs.

But the FTC guide says nothing about claims that a product is natural, organic, or sustainable.

“Natural” still has no regulatory definition.  Of Natural, the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

“Organic” is defined by the USDA through its National Organic Program.

“Sustainable” has no regulatory definition.

Will the FTC’s guide help alleviate confusion?  Perhaps, if companies follow it.

 

 

 

 

 

Aug 10 2012

Here we go again: what does “natural” mean?

I did an interview with Alexandra Zissu who asked me to define “natural” as applied to foods.  Here’s what I told her:

I think of “natural”–that most overused and deliberately misleading term–to mean foods as nature intended: no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, no preservatives, no artificial colors or flavors, and only minimally processed (washing and cutting is OK, treating with nitrates or enzymes is not).

I’ve written about this issue in previous posts.  The FDA still hasn’t done anything to define the term for food labels.  I think it should.

What’s your definition?

Added question: Are GMO foods “natural?”  California courts say no.

Update August 11: Several people have written in to say the California ruling is as yet unsettled.  The website for what’s happening with Prop. 37 is here.  One reader writes:

The judge ordered that this text in the ballot materials:

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.

Be changed so”all processed foods” reads “some processed foods.”

How this will be interpreted remains to be seen.

 

 

May 30 2012

Stevia and other “natural” sweeteners: are they?

FoodNavigator-USA.com did a special edition “Where next for natural sweeteners?”  “Special editions are collections of previously published articles on topics of interest to this newsletter’s food industry readers.

Why do this?  The holy grail of food technology is to find a no-calorie sweetener that tastes as good as sugar, has no bitter aftertaste, and can be marketed as “natural” because it’s extracted from plants. Examples: Stevia extracted from leaves Monk fruit sweetener.

As with high fructose corn syrup, not everyone considers these sweeteners to be natural since they have to go through chemical processing steps.

Stevia is extracted from leaves with ethanol.  Whether this process can be considered natural is currently under debate in Europe.  Some European regulators prefer “extracted from a plant source.”

Here are some of the articles.  For the complete collection, click here.

Monk fruit sweetener firm: ‘We hear daily that people are looking for alternatives to stevia’

It might not have garnered as much publicity as stevia, but monk fruit (luo han guo) “has found a niche within the all-natural market but will hit mass market sooner than stevia in this space”, according to one leading supplier… Read

Tate & Lyle: Monk fruit sweetener attracting most interest in dairy and beverages

Dairy and beverages are proving the most popular application areas for monk fruit sweetener Purefruit, says Tate & Lyle… Read

Different processes, lower cost, better taste: Is stevia still on track for mainstream success?Taste issues and high cost repeatedly have been raised as possible obstacles to widespread acceptance of stevia-derived sweeteners, but one of the many new suppliers entering the market claims that these are no longer the hurdles they once were… Read

Steviol glycosides are not ‘all-natural’, says new class action lawsuitA class action lawsuit filed in California this week argues that steviol glycosides should not be considered natural, owing to the “chemical processing” sometimes used to extract them from the stevia leaf… Read

Stevia buyers beware: There are some ‘awful’ extracts out there…

While traders “jumping in and out of the stevia marketplace” are disrupting prices and standards by peddling some “awful” extracts, high-quality stevia suppliers in it for the long-haul will ultimately prosper, according to one leading player… Read

Stevia in snacks and baked goods – stealth, competition, and potential

While stevia is beginning to take off in a number of baked goods and snack categories in the US, Asian and South American markets, some other emerging ‘natural’ sweeteners look ready to take it on in the segment, claims Datamonitor… Read

Naturally-positioned sweeteners to lead market growth: Report

The US alternative sweeteners market will grow by 3.3% a year to reach about $1.4bn in 2015 – and naturally positioned sweeteners like stevia and agave nectar will lead the way, claims a new report from market research organization Freedonia… Read

Mar 1 2012

What about that pesky “natural” on food labels?

FoodNavigator.com has issued a collection of its recent articles on “natural” and processing.  At issue is the meaning of “natural,” which many people perceive as equivalent to organic or healthy.  As I’ve said before, it isn’t.

Natural has no regulatory meaning.  The FDA merely says (note obfuscating double negatives):

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.

That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

One thing is clear: “natural” sells food products.

Selling processed foods in a whole food world? Authenticity is key: Consumers increasingly are choosing whole and unprocessed foods – so is it the end of the line for processed food manufacturers? Not if they move with the times, say ingredient suppliers.

Who is driving the clean label agenda, and what does ‘clean’ really mean? Attempts to link clean-labeling policies with the healthy eating agenda have been so successful that research now shows shoppers equate ‘healthy’ with ‘natural’ or ‘minimally processed’ foods.

‘Natural’: The most meaningless word on your food label?  Consumers, the marketers all tell us, want foods that are ‘wholesome’, ‘authentic’, and above all ‘natural’, although few of them can articulate what this means.

‘Processed’ foods are often high in sodium – but what’s a processed food? About 75% of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods. It’s a regularly cited figure – but what exactly is a ‘processed’ food? Consumers might be surprised.

Processing is a dirty word – but we’ll need more of it to feed the world. Processing has become a dirty word, but we are going to need more processing, not less, in order to feed a growing population, according to professor and head of food science at Penn State University John Floros.

FDA: get to work!

Nov 8 2011

Food politics semantics: the meaning of “natural”

Are you puzzled, annoyed, or irritated beyond belief by the word “natural” on food product labels?

FoodNavigator must think so.  It conducted an opinion survey on what to do about marketing foods as “natural”.

FoodNavigator asked: Do we [food companies] need a clearer definition of ‘natural’ for food marketing?

The response options:

  • Yes. The FDA should come up with a formal definition (63% checked this one)
  • Yes. The industry should develop voluntary guidance (20%)
  • No. The FDA’s 1993 guidance is sufficient (~1%)
  • No. The term is meaningless and manufacturers should stop using it (16%)

Hello FDA.  How about it?

The FDA has never defined “natural” for labeling purposes.  But it does have an answer to the question “what is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of a food,” one that requires self-cancelling nots (my emphasis):

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.

That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

By this non-definition, High Fructose Corn Syrup is “natural” even though to make it, corn refiners must extract the starch from corn, treat the starch with an enzyme to break it into glucose, and treat the glucose with another enzyme to turn about half of it into fructose.

This is “natural,” according to the FDA, because the enzymes are fixed to a column, do not actually mix with the starch, and HFCS does not contain added colors or flavors.

In contrast, the USDA is way ahead and has defined what “natural” means for meat and poultry products.  “Naturally raised” means  no growth promoters, antibiotics, animal by-products, or fish by-products.

The USDA says meat and poultry products can be labeled “natural” if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives, or other additives.

As I’ve discussed previously, Horizon Organics now has “natural” milk that does not meet standards for organic certification.  It must hope that consumers can’t tell the difference.

To do something about this confusing situation, FoodNavigator reports that  the Natural Products Association (NPA) is developing standards for use of the word “natural” in food marketing.  This will be similar to the NPA’s Natural Seal Certification for personal home-care products.  NPA is doing this to “give consumers confidence that foods featuring the seal adhere to clear set of standards.”

NPA has not yet worked out the details but says some ingredients are unlikely to qualify:  those extracted with organic solvents, modified starch, high fructose corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Oops.  What about GMOs?  NPA hasn’t decided yet, mainly because it is so hard to find soy products that are not GMO.

This situation is a mess and runs the risk of undercutting organic standards.  And we hardly need another certification system.

It’s time for the FDA to step in and give the food industry—and the public—some guidance about what counts as “natural” and what does not.

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