What is 'Natural' Food?

Choosing ingredients carefully and working with supplies can make natural food formulation a cleaner proposition.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

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At a time when most trade shows are flattening or even shrinking, the 2015 Natural Products Expo West at the Anaheim (Calif.) Convention Center grew by more than 7 percent over the year prior, with more than 71,000 attendees and 2,700 exhibiting companies — among them 634 first-time exhibitors.

Also last month, the Organic Trade Association released the results of a recent study showing that the organic customer is beginning to look more like everyone else. Organic and natural foods are more mainstream than ever, and if you are in the business of designing food products, chances are you have developed natural products or helped redesign products to offer a more natural appeal.

Natural, in all its forms and definitions, is big business, and also becoming standard operating procedure for even the largest and most mainstream food and beverage companies. In last month's Editor's Plate, we listed 19 longtime exhibitors at Natural Products Expo West that are now owned by Top 100 food and beverage companies.

The term natural is becoming more defined and covers a more narrow scope of products within the food manufacturing industry.

– Blair Brown, Senior Regulatory Specialist, TIC Gums

So, in pursuit of a growing number of consumers, product developers are now on the lookout for ingredients and development practices that can help make their products more natural.

“Clean and natural labeling is a consumer-driven trend that is expected to continue,” says Thom King, president and CEO of Steviva Ingredients Portland, Ore. “Because natural is not defined by governmental agencies, consumers, retailers, regulators and industry are seeking more specific details. This is where consumer demand will dictate natural claims.”

The FDA has resisted calls to create a definition for natural. It did, however, explain its non-binding informal policy, which states: "The agency has considered 'natural' to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there."

What is natural?

The question of what exactly is natural has been hanging around for some time in the food business, but in some ways, the answer has become “you know it when you see it.”

“The term natural is becoming more defined and covers a more narrow scope of products within the food manufacturing industry,” says Blair Brown, senior regulatory specialist with TIC Gums White Marsh, Md. “Ten years ago the term natural meant different things to different industries, different types of consumers and in different parts of the world. We are now seeing a more concise definition and common key requirements for natural across the board.”

When pressed for that emerging definition, Brown cautiously offers: “Customers are looking for naturally occurring raw ingredients that are processed without modifying the native chemical structure of any of the materials.”

The same caution was exercised by a spokesperson for Tate & Lyle. The company announced a new sugar last month based on allulose, a sugar found in numerous fruits and vegetables. Tate & Lyle's product, Dolcia Prima, comes from corn. But when asked if the company considers it natural, the spokesperson said:

“Natural is an area where there’s a high level of discussion. We provide our customers with all the necessary information on the ingredient and they themselves determine the type of claims they want to make about the finished products they manufacture.”

There's good reason for such caution. "I think we're seeing the end of the golden age of natural," Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, said at last year's Natural Products Expo West. "The FDA doesn't want to define natural. They know what a mess this is."

As a result, there are numerous lawsuits, especially in California, challenging the natural claims of various food products. The ubiquity of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is one reason, although the first "natural" lawsuit actually was over high-fructose corn syrup, Israelsen noted. Alkalized cocoa and other ingredients created through the use of solvents also are being challenged if the products they're in claim to be natural.

What has emerged is a protocol for meeting expectations of natural foods customers and consumers.

“We have seen specific examples where manufacturers have been given natural definitions, or a specific list of acceptable natural products, by retailers that they must adhere to,” Brown says. Whole Foods Markets has a well-known set of requirements. Walmart has another set for its growing SKUs of natural foods.

Miller Baking Co., Milwaukee, makes commodity bread products, but also a premium pretzel roll line that is sold in Whole Foods Market stores in 10 regions. For the Whole Foods account, Miller must up the naturalness of its ingredients.

“For instance, using enzymes in Pretzilla products provides a longer shelf life without the use of chemically derived stabilizers,” says Brian Miller, president of the family-owned bakery. "People still want bakery products that offer freshness and fit into a healthy diet."

Speaking of baked goods, there seems to be a significant number of products in that category that make some type of blueberry claim without having a trace of the little blue fruits. The Huffington Post recently published a report, "Bad news for blueberry lovers," that called out 11 products from major food companies that touted some blueberry identity; most are completely blueberry-free, although some have a dash of blueberry concentrate.

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