The question of if and when FDA creates a workable definition for the term natural has been with the food industry since before the debate about GMOs. While it is still difficult to say whether the agency will ever clear the fog as to what constitutes natural, there are historical (as well as some recent) indications that various actors in the food industry already have determined what is natural.
Among these are organic certification, the curating practices of Whole Foods Markets, the opinions of Wall Street Journal authors and the decisions by some food processors and retailers to adopt clean label formulation and avoid genetically modified ingredients.
So, what allows a food to be called natural?
Currently FDA reluctantly concedes that foods being called natural should not contain “added color, artificial flavors.” Similarly, Whole Foods Markets has said that foods it will sell must be “free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats.”
A few years ago, food author Michael Pollen suggested that the best foods have an ingredient list with five items or less, and that none of those would be unrecognizable to your grandmother.
Most recently, two top cereal makers introduced new versions of iconic brands that were reformulated to make a non-GMO claim. In early January boxes of Cheerios arrived on store shelves with a non- GMO claim. Shortly thereafter, Post Grape Nuts followed suit.
"We did it because we think consumers will embrace it," Tom Forsythe, vice president of global communications for General Mills, wrote on the company blog (see Cheerios now GMO Free). But just last month, General Mills CEO Kenneth Powell told the Associated Press the company was "not really seeing anything there that we can detect" in terms of increased sales.
"It's what I expected," Powell said. According to the AP, he added that genetically modified organisms “aren't really a concern for most customers.”
Meanwhile with the word natural arousing complaints and consumer shrugs, a replacement has emerged. The word simple is showing up, particularly in products that sport a short ingredient deck like the Haagen-Dazs Five line and Keebler's Simply Made Cookies.
Whether it's a natural claim, or a simple ingredient list they hang it on, food and beverage manufacturers making everything from soup to breaded chicken pieces are looking for ways to appeal to growing ranks of label-readers. This requires special attention from the R&D team when it comes to reformulation.
With the broader availability of natural colors, natural sweeteners and organic and multifunctional ingredients, making more natural foods has become more … well … simple.
GMOs, in or out?
Just last month, under pressure from consumer groups, Kroger and Safeway decided they would not carry genetically modified salmon. In a statement, Kroger confirmed the news that had been released by a consumer advocacy group.
“To date, the FDA has not approved any GE [genetically engineered] salmon for human consumption. Should GE salmon come to market, we are not considering nor do we have any plans to carry GE salmon,” the statement read. “The seafood products we offer will continue to be selected consistent with our Responsible Seafood Purchasing Policy, Responsible Sourcing Commitment and our partnership with FishWise.”
Kroger apparently was referring to the Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. With genes from a faster-growing Pacific chinook salmon and some from an eel, it grows to market size in 16-18 months rather than three years. It has not yet been approved for human consumption by the FDA.
Several other retailers including Whole Foods Markets also are rejecting genetically modified salmon, if only over concerns that the fish could escape from fish farms and compete or breed with non-modified fish.
Last summer a California-based federal judge refused to rule on a question about natural claims for GMOs. Is it lawful to label foods "natural" when they contain ingredients whose genes have been modified?
In a proposed class action lawsuit filed against the tortilla giant Gruma Corp., U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers referred to FDA "the question of whether and under what circumstances food products containing ingredients produced using bioengineered seed may or may not be labeled 'Natural' or 'All Natural' or '100 percent Natural.' " She also put a stay on the case for six months. A few years earlier, another court considering a similar question deferred to FDA, but the agency did not move to define natural then.
There is little or no scientific evidence that GMOs make food any less safe or nutritious, but they are vehemently opposed by many natural food advocates. And GMOs have been clearly written out of organic definitions. FDA has shown inclinations to allow GMOs in the general food supply, but whether or not to allow them in natural foods has muddied the discussion on defining natural and may keep such a definition at bay for some time.
Sweeteners and colors
Avoiding artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners currently puts a food product on the path toward acceptance as natural. And in recently years it has become much easier to source ingredients that are not considered artificial.
For more than a decade, ingredient companies such as Sensient Colors LLC, St. Louis, have been transitioning from lakes and dyes to natural colors.
Recently Sensient introduced DustPro NXT, a line of powdered natural colors that significantly reduces dust levels while improving color solubility compared to traditional natural color powders.
“The DustPro NXT product line gives our customers a new natural color alternative,” Mike Geraghty, president of the color group, said when the line was rolled out. “While these natural color powders minimize important dust and cross-contamination concerns, they also have the extra benefits of extended shelf-life, reduced clean-up time and easier shipping. We see our natural color science quickly closing the gap with synthetic color technology every day, and Sensient works hard to create easy, compatible, turn-key color solutions to advance the natural colors market.”
New natural sweeteners have been introduced even more recently, including stevia and monk fruit. One of the newest, Steviva Blend is a blend of rebaudioside-A (a stevia extract) and all natural grain extract erythritol, a filler which is naturally occurring in a variety of foods and derived from non-GMO fermented grain.
Thom King, president of Steviva Ingredients, Portland, Ore., says the new generation of sweeteners can help processors achieve a clean-label. “Our entire line is minimally processed mostly using water extraction and or natural fermentation processes, which are non-GMO, gluten free, Kosher and free of petrochemicals,” King says. “When our manufacturers use our products in a process they are able to replace chemical-based sweeteners like AceK and sucralose and have a much cleaner label.”
As for defining natural, King says Steviva follows a definition that might be considered “more stringent” than many. “We define all-natural as derived or extracted from ingredients that are grown in the ground that have been treated or processed without the use of petrochemicals and have not been genetically modified from an original cultivar.”
Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates offers both stevia-based sweeteners under the brand name Tasteva and monk fruit under the Nectresse label. Each has applications in a variety of goods and beverages.
Megan Kirchhoff, product manager, says the new zero-calorie Tasteva can aid in clean label formulation. It “enables food and beverage manufacturers to work toward natural and cleaner-label claims for their products. We are seeing consumers become more interested in learning about the quality and nutritional benefits of their food, which means ingredients that they can understand and recognize.”
As an example, Tate & Lyle took a prototype product to a recent trade show. Using Tasteva Stevia Sweetener, the beverage achieved 75 percent sugar reduction and 70 percent calorie reduction in a blackberry-peach sparkling beverage compared to the full-sugar version.
“Tasteva delivered a clean, sweet taste without a bitter aftertaste even at higher usage levels,” Kirchoff says.
Meanwhile, Steviva had a similar success story with a client that makes a meal replacement bar that had been sweetened with an artificial sweetener.
“They targeted a health-oriented body-building market,” King said. “There bars are from an uncooked process. We developed a custom sweetening solution that matched the flavor profile of the original and then milled it in-house to a 100 mesh that dissolved quickly in a cool, uncooked environment.”
The bar company grew its business exponentially in the four years since, King said. “They have earned massive amounts of repeat business from their customers because of the all-natural clean label and delivering 30g of protein with less than 10g of sugar,” he notes.
Nielsen-Massey Vanilla, Waukegan, Ill., produces a wide range of pure vanillas and vanilla extracts. For customers seeking complex flavors and clean labels, CEO Craig Nielsen recommends pure vanilla grown conventionally or certified organic. Pure vanilla helps reinforce a natural claim, he says.
Even with pure vanilla, "you have to follow the guidelines," Nielsen says. “You can only use very specific ingredients.”
Organic vanilla is great for processors intending to make a certified organic, or made-with-organic-ingredients claim.
“Traditionally organic beans had been sold at a 30 percent premium price over conventional pure, Nielsen says. “Now it is down to around 15 percent. Nearly all pure vanilla products are ostensibly organic, because the growers can't usually acquire chemicals.”There is also an interest in and growing supply of fair trade vanilla, Massey notes, adding that organic and fair trade currently make up about 20 percent of the pure vanilla market and about 5 percent of the overall vanilla trade.
Milk and cookies
The Organic Foods Production Act was approved in 1990. When asked how to define natural, proponents of organic foods answer that the organic standards already do that. One such proponent is George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley Family of Farms, La Farge, Wis.
Organic milk production increased exponentially near the beginning of the millennium, at a time when most conventional dairy processors were using raw milk from cows treated with growth hormones. With organic milk selling for nearly twice the price of conventional milk, a second tier of non-organic milk, produced without synthetic growth hormones, soon came to the market at a price above conventional milk but below organic.
But Organic Valley, the branded division of the largest organic producer cooperative in the U.S., continued to champion organic milk.
In a recent interview with natural food media outlet, Siemon explained that Organic Valley's Grassmilk goes a step further than organic in that the milk comes from cows on a 100 percent natural, pasture-based diet. Organic Valley also helped lead a campaign a few years ago that modified the organic regulations to require significant pasture access for cows.
While Grassmilk meets the demand of the most ardent natural foods consumers (Siemon says some consumers are now avoiding animal foods that are produced with the use of corn and soy to replace more natural diets), the Simply Made line of cookies from Keebler is intended for a much broader audience — consumers who want more basic, natural food.
Simply Made cookies, introduced in 2013, are marketed for their relatively short ingredient deck -- in some flavors, there are just four or five ingredients. The Simply Made Chocolate Chip cookies, for instance, are made from wheat flour, chocolate, sugar, butter and canola oil and a few other innocuous things like vanilla that come in at less than 2 percent of the volume. Two cookies provide 140 calories, and 8g of sugar.
In 2009 Nestlé Dreyer's Ice Cream Co., Oakland, Calif., rolled out the Haagen-Dazs Five line, which took a similar approach. The Five line is made up of simple flavors like vanilla and lemon, and without fudging much, the company limits the ingredient list to five items.
A year or two from now, should FDA come to some decision on the issue, food scientists may have a more precise measure of what constitutes a natural food. Until that day comes, should it ever, they will need to look at what their end customer might want and make formulation decisions accordingly.