CHICAGO — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been asked numerous times to define the descriptor natural as it relates to foods and beverages. The agency requested official public comment on defining the term, which closed May 10, 2016; however, on-line comments are still being made by consumers, with nearly 7,700 posts that may be read at https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FDA-2014-N-1207.
No action has been taken by F.D.A. It’s safe to say this won’t happen in 2017, and for that matter, likely not next year either. It’s a very low priority, if even on the current administration’s to-do list. For now, F.D.A. states, “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.”
Further, F.D.A. claims to have a longstanding policy concerning use of the term. The agency considers the term to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic, including all color additives regardless of source, has been included in or has been added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization or irradiation. The F.D.A. also did not consider whether the term natural should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
How do food and beverage suppliers navigate use of the term? Food Business News spoke with 10 ingredient suppliers to get their perspective.
Food Business News: What are the challenges and opportunities with navigating use of the term natural?
David Hart, business unit director, Salt of the Earth, Israel: Though there is no F.D.A.-issued definition of natural, the guidelines are clear enough. There can’t be any synthetic chemicals, and ingredients need to be minimally processed using a handful of accepted methods. The number of class-action lawsuits and the opaque definition of natural has led to food companies being more cautious and thoroughly vetting all of their ingredients before making any claims around natural. This gives an advantage to ingredients that are clearly natural, even according to strict definitions of the term.
Jon Getzinger, chief marketing officer, Puris Foods, Minneapolis: There is quite a bit of consumer confusion when it comes to the differences and relative merits between natural, non-G.M.O. and organic. This confusion often impacts the purchasing behaviors of health-conscious consumers. Natural is often used by brands trying to imbue attributes such as authentic, wholesome and better-for-you.
In reality, a lack of definition and the ubiquity of the word natural, at least in the macro-ingredients world, allows marketers a less expensive approach to gain consumers rather than meeting the requirements and additional expenses required for something such as certified organic. However, in the long run, the somewhat arbitrary use of the word natural is likely to lead to a consumer backlash.
Marilyn Stieve, marketing manager, Biospringer North America, Milwaukee, Wis.: It is important for manufacturers to understand not just the source of the ingredient, but also to understand what processes the ingredient undergoes.
Thierry Gay, technical sales director, Frutarom Natural Colors Europe, France: Going all-natural may be achieved by replacing process aids by natural ingredients, such as lemon juice instead of citric acid, acerola concentrate instead of ascorbic acid, invert sugars by fruit sugars, synthetic antioxidants by rosemary extracts, etc.
Carolyn Clark, director of global marketing, PureCircle, Oak Brook, Ill.: From our proprietary global research, we know that consumers care about the origin and processing of ingredients and the products that they go into. Our research also shows that consumers associate plant-based, natural-origin ingredients as natural.
Nancy Gaul, global marketing director-health and wellness, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill.: With no legal definition for natural in the U.S., it is open to interpretation by manufacturers and consumers. Every manufacturer has a unique formulation challenge. It all depends on what manufacturers are trying to achieve for their brand and what their end consumer is looking for. So, if your consumers are more concerned about the source of ingredients, then you’re going to want to consider ingredients with more of a health halo. Additionally, if your brand is built around specific claims, then that will impact the type of ingredient you use in your formulations.
Dave Charest, vice-president, meat industry, Corbion, Lenexa, Kas.: Food brand owners and processors often have natural committees, which are comprised of research and development, regulatory, marketing and sales, and legal teams, in order to determine if a particular ingredient meets their standards for natural and can be listed in a product labeled as such.
Shavon Jackson-Michel, medical and scientific affairs advisor, DolCas Biotech L.L.C., Landing, N.J.: We are selective in our associations, choosing suppliers with transparent supply chain and testing procedures, so that easily concealed synthetics and unregulated manufacturing processes do not compromise the natural designation.
How is the lack of a formal definition influencing the natural ingredients market?
Benny Antony, joint managing director, Arjuna Natural Extracts, India: A promising future lies ahead for natural food ingredients with current trends toward cleaner food labels. As consumers drift toward natural additives in their preferences and simultaneously become more demanding in terms of better quality, the issue of stabilizing foods becomes more challenging. Future consumers are expected to be more and more aware about what they eat and drink.
Mr. Hart: There is definitely a drive for natural and even more so for clean label ingredients. This is driven by consumers wanting to eat foods that are healthier and “better” for them, and an increased interest in and understanding of ingredient statements. It is not enough that the ingredient is natural, it also needs to be understandable to the average consumer. Products that can boast a clean label are at the leading edge of this trend and driving product development decisions. There are plenty of options and technologies that are available to make natural products that are suited for the modern food supply chain.
Mr. Charest: Artificial preservatives, such as sorbates, propionates, benzoates and more, which are derived from petroleum processing and chemistry, are not considered natural. Conversely, plant-based extracts, like rosemary, and ingredients such as vinegar, lactic acid, cultured sugar or dextrose, and fermented celery powder, which are produced through fermentation, are considered natural. It is important for manufacturers to understand how the fermentation process works and the benefits it offers if they want to include these ingredients in their products.
What is the ingredient industry doing to help meet demand for natural ingredients? What is your company doing?
Mr. Antony: The label “no artificial preservatives” has practically become an icon in natural foods. But it doesn’t mean reduced shelf life is acceptable. We have developed new natural solutions for food products that enhance shelf life and quality without compromising safety or sensory attributes. Our products are a combination of antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant components isolated from different natural sources.
Mr. Hart: We have invested significant resources to create an all-natural and clean label ingredient for sodium reduction and savory flavor enhancement. It is positioned perfectly in the drive for natural and clean label foods, as it can be used instead of monosodium glutamate, yeast extracts or hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. The ingredients (vegetable extracts and sea salt) are all plant-based, minimally processed, easily recognized by consumers and are a natural source of intense umami flavor compounds. It can reduce sodium in food applications up to 45%. The ingredient won the I.F.T.17 Food Expo Innovation Award.
Mr. Getzinger: Like us, many in the industry are committed to growing and manufacturing ingredients responsibly. For us, that includes producing everything in the U.S., and our products are either organic or Non-G.M.O. Project verified. We don’t believe that using the word natural is the best way to define our ingredients for either our partners or consumers, as it sets a low, nebulous bar.
Ms. Gaul: We provide our customers with the facts on how our ingredients are made and sourced so that they can make informed decisions with regards to marketing claims aligned with the benefits.
Courtney Schwartz, senior marketing communications manager, Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines: Consumers are not just looking at the ingredients listed in their product. They are interested and concerned with all aspects of the production of these products. From animal welfare to raw material/ingredient sourcing to sustainability.
This relates back to the need for total transparency from food manufacturers. We address this with our vertical integration approach to plant extracts. This approach allows a company to have total supply chain control, which reduces raw material contamination risk and also puts emphasis on the sustainability of product. Soon it will not simply be enough to have easily recognized ingredients in the ingredient deck. It will go deeper, and consumers will want to know the story behind their foods.