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FDA Taking a Stand on “Natural” Label Claims?

Posted on | April 4, 2008 | No Comments

New ruling on high fructose corn syrup is a first step — and industry has responded

This week, the FDA decided to (sort of) take a stand on the use of the word “natural” in processed foods. First, some background. Many food products are labeled with the claim “natural,” but it has been problematic. There have been petitions from the Sugar Association and CSPI urging the FDA to define “natural” so that food companies would have some framework in which they could (or could not) label a product as natural.

Although the FDA has managed to avoid defining “natural”, leaving consumers to their own to figure out if they believe the product is natural, they have taken a small stand on a little known sweetener called HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), which is prevalent in sugared sodas and other sweetened “juices” and beverages. It is found in smaller amounts in all kinds of food products. Want to know how much HFCS is in your processed food? Check out the ingredients list. The ingredients, by law, have to be listed in order so the first ingredient is the most abundant. If you see HCFS in the first couple of ingredients, you know there is a decent amount.

Now, I’m not one to villify HFCS as an individual product for use in the food industry simply because the research that is available doesn’t show that HFCS is harmful or acts any differently in your body than does sugar. Here’s a thoughtful, balanced summary and viewpoint of the “sweetener science”.

I personally believe the real issue is not with HFCS, but it is with the overall pattern of food consumption. The more processed foods we eat in general, the fewer whole foods we are eating. I’m talking meals made from fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grain rice, pastas and breads, and a little bit of lean protein. This is exactly what the dietary guidelines recommend and it is based on years of scientific evidence. My friend has a philosophy: “if it didn’t run, swim, fly or grow from the ground then it’s not a whole food.” So rather than looking at one ingredient and calling it bad, look at what’s happening overall. The good news is that if you prefer to avoid HFCS or artificial sweeteners there are plenty of companies willing to offer you products without it.

Ah. I digress… One thing we can say about HFCS, according to the FDA, is “High Fructose Corn Syrup is not natural”.

Here’s how the industry reaction went down: the corn people opposed it, the sugar people and CSPI supported it. Gotta love politics. If you want more scientific details, visit the original report. I put the cliff’s notes version below.

Opposition

The US corn trade body – Corn Refiners Association (CRA) – has said that June’s comments “actually (reflect) only the personal view of that one (FDA) employee who was responding to a reporter’s question”, and do not constitute the official position of the agency.

“In fact, the official FDA position on products made with HFCS is unchanged, and those products can be described as ‘natural’ under current regulations. The Food & Drug Administration Regulations clearly state that a comment by an employee does not constitute an advisory opinion and does not obligate or commit the agency to the views expressed,” said CRA in a statement yesterday.

Support

On the other end of the spectrum, the sugar industry has expressed its support for FDA’s comments, and calls for these to be formalized. The nation’s sugar trade body – the Sugar Association – has already petitioned FDA to define the term natural.

“While the FDA representative has provided a statement clarifying what processes would not be considered ‘natural’ under current policy, the Sugar Association believes FDA should provide this as official guidance and further urges FDA to provide an official definition for ‘natural’ in response to our existing petition,” it said.

The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which was responsible for the threatened lawsuit against Cadbury Schweppes and which had also backed the lawsuit against Kraft, yesterday said “it is good to see that FDA can confirm reality.”

It added that “we’d prefer the agency to issue a more comprehensive definition to assist companies to know what’s right and wrong.”

“HFCS has never been natural, and consumers do not consider it to be so. In terms of consumer deception, it doesn’t really matter what CSPI, FDA or anyone says – people don’t want HFCS and by calling a product ‘natural’ they are led to believe that it does not contain HFCS,” said CSPI director of litigation Steve Gardener.

Kraft and Cadbury Schweppes did not respond to calls for comment in time for publication.

FDA comments

Although FDA provides no formal definition for ‘natural’, it does have a longstanding policy regarding the use of the term. This states that a ‘natural’ product is one that has not had any artificial or synthetic substances added to the product that would not normally be expected to be in the food – including artificial flavors or color additives, regardless of source.

FDA also does not currently restrict the use of the term ‘natural’ except on products that contain added color, synthetic substances and flavors as provided for in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 101.22.

The agency said it has a system in place for manufacturers to inquire about the use of particular ingredients.

In response to FoodNavigator-USA’s inquiry – made under this system – FDA said:

“HFCS (Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 184.1866) is prepared from a high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate by partial enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose using an insoluble glucose isomerase enzyme preparation listed at 21 CFR 184.1372.”

“Per 184.1372, the glucose isomerase enzyme preparation is fixed (rendered insoluble) using safe and suitable immobilization/fixing agents, including those listed in 21 CFR 173.357.”

“The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our above-stated policy regarding the use of the term ‘natural’. Consequently, we would object to the use of the term “natural” on a product containing HFCS.”

“Moreover, the corn starch hydrolysate, which is the substrate used in the production of HFCS, may be obtained through the use of safe and suitable acids or enzymes. Depending on the type of acid(s) used to obtain the corn starch hydrolysate, this substrate itself may not fit within the description of “natural” and, therefore, HCFS produced from such corn starch hydrolysate would not qualify for a “natural” labeling term.”

What do you think about this decision, HFCS, and the food industry’s use of natural?

(Rebecca Scritchfield is an exercise and nutrtion writer, speaker and consultant. She can be reached at rscritchfield@gmail.com. Opinions expressed by Health Commentary guest bloggers do not necessarily represent the views of Health Commentary.)

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