'All-Natural' a Legal Gray Area for Food and Beverage Labeling

As a marketing enhancement, ‘All-Natural’ is a natural. But as a definition on a food or beverage label, it resides in a gray legal area.

By David Feder, RD, Technical Editor

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Healthy Choice
ConAgra upped the ante in its long-running Healthy Choice line by adding All Natural Entrees

Even with the wide latitude to use the term natural, the desire to be above reproach is a necessity that became the mother of invention for ingredient manufacturers. Some of their primary goals, such as getting natural reds and yellows, created new opportunities for combining the functionality of color with nutraceutical value.

Turmeric — with well-researched anticarcinogenic properties — has long been a valued replacer for the increasingly shunned artificial yellows (specifically tartrazine, derived from coal tar). Similary, Lycored Ltd. (www.lycored.com), Orange, N.J., made significant strides in creating longer and stronger reds from its lycopene rich tomato extracts.

However, some naturally derived colors, such as violet, present difficulties in attaining a vividness beyond such traditional sources as berry extracts. Afton, Minn.-based Suntava Co. (www.suntava.com) has created a purple corn-derived line of vibrant purples and other colors in the violet to red spectrum from an ancient species of corn. Best of all, the company did so without resorting to genetic modification beyond the traditional cross-breeding of farmers throughout history. As with turmeric and tomato, Suntava’s colors also provide strong antioxidant nutraceutical value.

D.D. Williamson is expected to announce a certified organic blue from similar corn any day now.

Flavors au naturel

Purple Corn
Suntava Co. recently created a vibrant purple colorant derived from an ancient species of purple corn. D.D. Williamson is expected to announce a certified organic blue from similar corn any day now.

Krasny remarks also that there is a regulation defining “natural flavor,” which permits processing steps that physically purify or isolate a flavor substance without changing its chemical composition. Yet flavorants bring to the forefront one of the most controversial issues surrounding the “natural” labels.

MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a looming target for alternatives due to perceived negative effects by consumers. While the science behind negative effects of MSG on consumers has proven inconclusive except where some studies with children are concerned, the flavor enhancer has slowly gathered enough of a negative image that many processors consider it worth replacing.

The thing about MSG is, it can be described as a natural flavor, derived from papaya. Moreover, consumers are starting to catch on that ingredients such as autolyzed yeast extract, torula yeast and hydrolyzed protein can be used as synonyms for MSG. (Processors should watch for a possible rising tide of public backlash against these ingredients.)

Sometimes, being natural and being accepted are two very different things. Look at high-fructose corn syrup. This is a sugar derived from corn, subject to great misinterpretation as processors ditch it for sucrose — which can actually have more fructose than HFCS does. At issue is the intensive, multistep chemical process with which HFCS is created from corn.

Taking the “Mr. Natural” approach to herbs poses a different set of challenges. “The most basic, usable form of an herbal ingredient is the herbal powder or tea — you begin with a either the whole plant or a plant part such as a root, bark, leaf or fruit and you simply dry it, mill it and sterilize it,” observes Emilio Gutierrez, vice president of technical services for BI Nutraceuticals (www.botanicals.com), Long Beach, Calif. But “an herbal powder, although quite popular for certain applications, would have many limitations in a food or beverage.

“The more versatile alternative is the herbal extract” Gutierrez continues. “The extract is typically clean of inert plant material such as cellulose, has degrees of concentration often tied to potency of natural components found in the plant and is standardized to guarantee lot-to-lot consistency.”

But he also notes the challenge to using extracts is that “the more you process and tweak that extract, the further you may getting from its natural state.” While Gutierrez recommends communicating with the supplier about how the ingredient you are considering is made and extracted, and what carriers are used in the standardization, he strongly urges discussing any labeling intentions with the supplier to ensure the accuracy of any claims.

With the issue of ingredient sources creating problems for some processors, technology can provide an escape hatch. “Technical challenges in formulating all-natural products are relatively easy and usually can be solved or worked around,” says Boyd. “For example, solubility issues may be dealt with by the use of food-grade processing aides or functional ingredients, such as emulsifiers. According to regulations it’s not necessary to declare processing aides and functional ingredients, like carriers and emulsifiers, if they do not serve a broader purpose in the food formulation.

“This means it is entirely possible to use a color additive containing, for instance, polysorbate 80, potassium hydroxide, propylene glycol or other food-grade materials, and declare only the colorant on the label — i.e., ‘colored with Annatto Extract’ or ‘Beta Carotene for color,’ ” he continues. “If one is conscientious about the meaning of ‘all-natural,’ the presence of these materials represents a problem. But it is entirely possible to find naturally derived alternatives to many synthetic emulsifiers.”

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