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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The offenders are: Jiffy Blueberry Muffin Mix, Quaker Blueberries & Cream Instant Oatmeal (apparently contain just a dash of blueberry concentrate), Kellogg's Special K Blueberry Bars, Pillsbury Blueberry Biscuits and Muffins, Kellogg Mini Wheats Blueberry, Panera Blueberry Bagels, Hungry Jack Blueberry Pancake Mix, Yoplait Light Blueberry Pie, Hershey Brookside Dark Chocolate Acai & Blueberry (also a touch of blueberry concentrate), Quaker Wild Blueberry Crisps and Krusteaz Blueberry Pancake Mix.

"[Some] products attempt to attract the consumer [with] synthetic blueberries formed from a variety of ingredients including gum bases, flavored bits of grain, fat, candy and blue-dyed fruit bits, such as apple," says a spokesperson for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council. "Mixed into a breakfast pastry or health bar, these pseudo-blueberries may superficially look the part, but they cannot provide the healthy profile of lush-tasting real blueberries, value-added qualities important to health-conscious consumers."

“We give our customers as much supporting information as possible to determine how a product will fit into that standard," Brown continues. "We share information about how a product is sourced and manufactured as well as an explanation of why we consider the product natural. This allows them to make an informed decision and know they are meeting the needs of their customers.”

Natural food makers tend to shy away from starches and gums, but that is not a necessity, Brown says.

“When a customer is formulating a natural food product, we ask them what they consider natural and then offer products that meet their requirements,” Brown says. “Because hydrocolloids impact the texture of a product, we are able to offer developers a natural solution to technical hurdles that may have been previously overcome with synthetic alternatives.”

Most of the hydrocolloids that TIC markets to food manufacturers are derived from agricultural and botanical sources. Examples would include gum acacia, which is derived from a tree exudate, or carrageenan, agar and alginate, which are sourced from seaweeds.

“When possible, these products are either processed in a way to not change their chemical make-up or processing aids and chemical additions are kept to a minimum,” Brown says.

Naturally sweet

The move toward natural foods also has had a major impact on sweeteners and sugars, in respect to both selecting ingredients and to how they are used in a formula.

It has become apparent that the abundance of sweet foods in the typical American diet is in vast disproportion to the occurrence of sweet foods in nature. While trying to rebalance the equation is something many consumers are cognizant of, sweet foods remain desirable, so another option is to cut sugar calories through alternative sweeteners. This no longer has requires "artificial" (synthetic) non-nutritive sweeteners.

“The challenge for natural foods developers working to maintain a sweetness level lies in the matrix of ingredients,” says King who works with a variety of food and beverage companies that wish to reduce sugars and/or eliminate artificial sweeteners in their products.

King's company, of course, markets stevia, as do a host of other companies. The natural sweetener from a small Peruvian plant is starting to have an impact on foods and especially beverages, although often in tandem with sugar or another sweetener.

When certain sweeteners are used in tandem, they perform more effectively than they would alone, King says. Making the most use of synergies optimizes flavor while lowering usage levels, which can reduce some bitter taste and lower ingredient cost.

Another natural sweetener is monk fruit. While the fruit, which is also known as luo han guo or Buddha fruit, has been around for centuries, the sweetener was commercialized by Tate & Lyle in 2011 under the name Purefruit.

A sweetening ingredient that is still for practical purposes on the sidelines is sweet potato juice extract.

Until now U.S. food makers had access to a few types of sweet potato juice concentrate, mostly imported from China, but later this year, a new source will be available — with a number of different forms and types — from Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients, Nashville, N.C. This will include naturally extracted products that act as sweeteners, but also can add texture, fiber and color to a variety of foods and beverages.

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