What is 'Natural' Food?

March 26, 2015
Choosing ingredients carefully and working with supplies can make natural food formulation a cleaner proposition.

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.


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.

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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