What is the definition of natural? For Christine Clement, owner of two Swiss Delices bakery locations in Northern California, to call her products natural they must be made with ingredients grown in soil free from certain pesticides for a minimum of five years, eggs from cage-free chickens and dairy from grass-fed cows. She’s right.
Gene Davidovich designates the handmade fresh and frozen bagels produced at his North Jersey wholesale bakery as natural because the formulas he uses are very similar to ones used a century ago, which include natural fermentation methods without the addition of dough softeners, conditioners or preservatives. He’s right, too.
American food producers, including bakers, operate without definitive regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about what is natural. It has been and will continue to be up to consumers to decide on the definition–that is, if the word natural means anything at all to them. According to Gary Karp, executive vice president at Chicagobased foodservice industry consulting firm Technomic, “consumers have an attraction to the word natural, but they’re becoming increasingly confused and skeptical as they see it used over and over in different ways.”
According to a 2009 survey conducted by international research company Mintel, consumers have little clarity when it comes to understanding natural and organic. More than half of the Mintel survey respondents said they believe products labeled as natural must meet a government standard. Only 30 percent say they trust the term natural on labels, while nearly half trust organic. However, the remaining respondents “don’t know if they can trust either term, meaning the industry has a long way to go instilling trust and educating consumers,” according to the firm’s report.
Surprisingly, in a spring 2010 consumer focus group, Knoxville, Tenn., advertising agency Shelton Group, learned that the term natural was greatly preferred over organic for the second consecutive year, reported the company’s vice president of research, Lee Ann Head. The designation “100% natural” was selected by 28 percent of the respondents, “all natural” by a little more than 24 percent and “100% organic” by only 18 percent. Retail trade magazine Natural Products Marketplace reported that in 2009, products labeled natural outsold organics by more than a 4:1 margin in food, drug and mass merchandise retailers.
But, says Head, skepticism about these and other green claims is increasing. In 2010, 26 percent of respondents categorized themselves as skeptics, up from 9 percent the previous year. Even so, according to research firm Nielsen Wire, food labeled as natural generated $22.3 billion in sales in 2008, up 10 percent from 2007 and up 37 percent from 2004.
“Since we opened in 1992, customers have told us that one of the reasons they came to us in the first place was because we emphasize that all of our products are 100 percent natural,” notes Tom Ivory, owner of Baker Street Bread Co. in suburban Philadelphia.
Davidovich says an increasing number of customers are telling him they found his bakery while searching for natural bagel bakeries on the Internet. Jill Houck, owner of Flour Girls Baking Co., a specialty wholesale bakery in Marion, Mass., explains that some customers even ask if specific ingredients, such as food colorings and cooking spray, are natural. The answer is yes.
One category of ingredients that seems to puzzle consumers and bakers alike is sweeteners. “I don’t know exactly what high fructose corn syrup is, but I know I don’t want to use it,” Houck admits.
According to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is nearly identical to table sugar–both contain about 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, the same basic components found in beet and cane sugar. For four decades, HFCS has been used as a much less expensive alternative to these sugars, notes CRA president Audrae Erickson.
Although he has long been a critic of excessive consumption of sugar of any derivation, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit consumer advocate organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) told CBS News last year that the demonizing of the corn-based sweetener began with a 2004 study that suggested a link between soft drinks containing HFCS and obesity.
“They didn’t have one shred of evidence to back up their theory,” Jacobson said in the interview. “And they eventually recanted…but they couldn’t put the genie back into the bottle.” Since then, he noted, “the evilness of high fructose corn syrup has become an urban myth.”
And it has been a powerful one, as evidenced by a 2009 market research study conducted by the NPD Group in which 58 percent of respondents were concerned about HFCS being a health hazard in food. Last year, Starbucks announced it was removing all HFCS from its bakery products, and Sara Lee, in a press release titled “Consumers Asked, Sara Lee Listened,” stated it had reformulated some of its breads to replace HFCS with sugar.
It also didn’t help the image of HFCS when the FDA, responding to a query from FoodNavigator-USA, officially objected to the labeling of a food product containing the sweetener as natural. This objection, the FDA explained, was not based on HFCS’s basic components, but on the process used to produce it.
“Subsequent to this response,” reads an official statement provided by the FDA, “we obtained additional information on the production of HFCS. Based on a review of a particular process commonly used to produce HFCS, we concluded that we would not object to the term natural on a food containing HFCS made in this way.”
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But, Erickson says, “many consumers still don’t think high fructose corn syrup sounds like a natural ingredient.” To counteract that prejudice, CRA petitioned the FDA to change the name of the product to the more natural-sounding “corn sugar” and has launched an extensive public relations campaign.
Natural sugar replacements?
As for other up-and-coming sweeteners, such as zero-calorie Stevia, Truvia and PureVia, all of which come from the South American herb stevia rebaudiana, there is still plenty of confusion about exactly what they are and how the FDA views them. While the stevia plant in its entirety has not made the FDA list of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) ingredients, a derivative called rebaudioside A, or rebiana, has.
During the last few years, it has become an increasingly consumeraccepted sweetener. In a consumer survey released last year by the NPD Group, 35 percent of consumers said they either already ate or would consider eating or drinking products that contain stevia. Despite the FDA’s specification that only certain derivatives of stevia are GRAS, many consumers continue to refer to these products by the plant’s generic name.
Observing that stevia is poised to become “the holy grail of sweeteners,” Mintel reported that since December 2008, sales of “the stevia market” (which includes stevia, Truvia and PureVia) have exploded. In the first eight months of 2009 alone, Mintel found that more than 100 stevia-containing products had been released in the United States.
By mid-July of that same year, sales topped $95 million, a substantial increase over the $21 million achieved in all of 2008, according to Mintel. The report also predicts the stevia market could exceed $2 billion by the end of 2011.
In its report on consumer packaged goods trends for 2011, Mintel predicts we should expect to see sugar and stevia used in conjunction to achieve an overall lower sugar content in new products. However, stevia will not always be part of the overt communication. Instead, the messaging will be “naturally sweetened” or “reduced sugar.” While some stevia-based sweeteners are available for use by consumers, most are not yet available for use by retail and commercial bakers.
Until the FDA comes up with its own regulations, American consumers must depend on independent watchdog groups, such as CSPI, to urge food producers to remove ingredients, such as alkalized cocoa and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, that either don’t exist in nature or have been chemically modified, or to stop calling them all natural. Although CSPI doesn’t have any legal teeth, it has managed to persuade such companies as Ben & Jerry’s and 7-Up to amend their packaging language.
In addition, the nonprofit National Products Association, based in Washington, D.C., is developing a natural certification program for food products and ingredients similar to ones it already offers for natural homecare and personal care products and ingredients, says Cara Welch, Ph.D., the organization’s scientific and regulatory affairs manager.
Our neighbors to the north are several steps ahead in defining natural. In Canada, even decaf coffee can’t be labeled all natural because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency stipulates that to make that claim, nothing may be added or removed (except for water) from a food or its ingredients. Paul Hetherington, president and C.E.O. of the Baking Association of Canada, explains “since the claim is regulated, consumers can be more confident that the use of the term is controlled, and products using the term and not meeting the definition can be readily removed from the market by our regulators.”
In a just-released report, Mintel predicts that in 2011 a “natural” shakedown will occur, in which terms that are vague or not well understood will come under fire by regulatory bodies. The company also expects a new focus on accentuating the positives of what is in a product, rather than emphasizing what is not.