'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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The 1990s hit TV show “Seinfeld” made more than half a billion dollars for its producers by being “all about nothing.” The “natural” label has done the same for an entire group of food & beverage producers.

The short answer is, there is no official definition of the word “natural” sanctioned by a government body or even a trade association. Yet, consumer research group Mintel International (www.mintel.com), Chicago, reports food & beverage products labeled “natural” beat out all others in numbers of products launched.

Not everyone agrees on what “natural” is. But one thing is for sure: We know what it isn’t. Or do we?

“Under section 403(a) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a food is deemed to be misbranded if its labeling is ‘false or misleading in any particular, including a natural claim,’ ” notes Leslie Krasny, an attorney and microbiologist in the San Francisco office of law firm Keller and Heckman LLP. “FDA never issued a regulation covering ‘natural’ claims in general but adopted an informal policy years ago that defines ‘natural,’ ” she says.

That definition, according to Krasny, is determined as meaning “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 the food.”

An example: If beet juice is used to color beets, it’s a natural colorant. If the same beet juice is used to color tortilla chips, it’s no longer a natural color additive.

“Natural” has enough of a draw that Annie Christopher used it to name her company. But she doesn’t define the term either, simply noting in promotional material “Annie’s uses only simple natural and organic ingredients, no icky additives or pesky preservatives.”

Despite their popularity, “all-natural” and “natural” labels are seen by other consumers as an attempt to cash in on the more stringent and better defined organic label. The more consistent truth, though less nefarious, is a desire simply to replace a core of increasingly shunned ingredients. Sweeteners for flavor and dyes and lakes for colors are perhaps the main targets for processors seeking such cleaner labels.

“We believe that some food products in U.S. supermarkets mistakenly claim ‘all-natural’ on the front or principal display panel even though vegetable or fruit juice coloring is present,” says Campbell Barnum, vice president of branding and market development for D.D. Williamson (www.ddwilliamson.com) Global Support Center in Louisville, Ky. “A compliant alternative could be to instead declare, ‘Made with naturally derived ingredients,’ assuming the other ingredients qualify.”

D.D. Williamson, maker of a full spectrum of natural colorants for 140 years, also is the exclusive distributor for ColorMaker, supplier of natural color blends derived from “agricultural/biological materials using conventional methods.”

The company points to a nearly 50-year-old conflict that sprang from the ability to commercially produce acetone-derived “synthetically made but chemically identical B-carotene” in 1960. While chemically it was indistinguishable from natural carotene, it was decided a new term — “color additives exempt from certification” — could be applied to both “natural colors” and “nature-identical” colors. The result was a dissolution of the legal term “natural color.” At least for a few decades. In other words, more confusion.

Seeing red

Today, this loose net does more harm than good to processors facing a demanding and skeptical public. The majority of consumers polled want stricter definitions of “natural” as they seek products free of synthetics.

The most definitive example of a targeted synthetic colors in foods and beverages would be Red 40. The drive to ditch this ingredient pariah has been increasing as studies continue to try to determine whether or not such artificial colorants have neurological effects on humans, especially children (i.e. increasing risk of autism or ADHD).

While the science is being sorted out, the public is not in the mood to wait. Consumers increasingly are rejecting products with these chemical additives. In some ways, the black and white approach to color has only made the situation more gray.

“Within the regulatory framework of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, there is really no such thing as a natural color,” says Winston Boyd, vice president and chief chemist for Lawrence Foods Inc. (www.lawrencefoods.com), Elk Grove Village, Ill. “Any added color is defined as artificial, except in the instance where the color itself is natural to the food system.”

Caramel coloring lends yet another hue to the “natural” chiaroscuro. Caramel color “does not require a certificate like FD&C colors,” according to a position paper released by colorant maker Sethness Inc. (www.sethness.com), Lincolnwood, Ill. Recognizing that, and the fact that “there is no ‘natural certificate’ for caramel color,” the paper points out “caramel color is mentioned as a ‘natural color’ in the May 2003 USDA Food Labels and Labeling Policy Book.”

USDA also allows caramel coloring to be listed directly by name without a qualifier, as in “caramel coloring added.” Sethness not only stresses the strictness with which it treats the term “natural,” it guarantees its products “contain no genetically modified proteins or DNA.”

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