In September 2006, Sara Lee Food & Beverage and Flowers Foods launched product lines that signified giant leaps forward for an industry often slow to change. Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga., introduced six premium loaves, two of which are made with organic flour and all six carry an "All Natural" claim. Sara Lee Food & Beverage, Downers Grove, Ill., conducted a nationwide launch of six varieties of "All Natural" bread.
These new products were not the first of their kind. In fact, organic and "natural" bakery foods have been part of the baking industry for years. However, these new products do signify the embrace of two once niche categories by national bakeries with extensive direct-store-delivery networks. Despite the embrace of organic and "natural" products by Flowers Foods and Sara Lee Food & Beverage though, there is still quite a ways to go before these types of product are prominently showcased on bread aisles throughout North America.
"There is an increasing awareness of organic foods, but it is by no means a mainstream trend yet," Janice Anderson, Flowers Foods’ vice president of marketing, says. "There are consumers who are interested in buying more organic, which is why we are offering them these two new breads. However, I think the organic trend has some hurdles to overcome, the biggest of which is the higher price of organic foods."
"Natural" products also have significant hurdles to overcome, mainly the fact that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not offered an official definition of "natural," causing bakeries and other food companies to self-police the use of the term. These hurdles, although significant, have not appeared to impede the evolution of bakery foods into these growing categories.
Defining the trend
Any efforts to lump "natural" and organic into one category are misguided. The products have very little in common. For starters, United States Department of Agriculture offers an official definition and guidelines for the production of organic bakery foods. The Organic Foods Production Act and National Organic Program defines three level of organic foods:
- "100% organic" and "organic"
– Products labeled as "100% organic" must contain, excluding water and salt, only organically produced ingredients. "Organic" products must be formulated with at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Any remaining ingredients in a formulation must be nonagricultural substances approved on the National List of non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic.
- "Made with organic ingredients"
– If a bakery food contains at least 70% organic ingredients, the product can be labeled "made with organic," and list as many as three of the organic ingredients on the principal display panel.
- Bakery foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term organic anywhere on the principal display panel. However, bakeries can list specific organic ingredients in the ingredient listing.
These guidelines were established to lend credibility to organic products and build trust between consumers and food manufacturers. If a product is mislabeled as organic, civil penalties can be levied. Conversely, the proper use of the term "natural" on bakery foods is undefined, not for lack of effort by some food companies and associations.
For years, various companies, groups and associations have called for FDA to offer an official definition and guidelines for the use of the term "natural" on product packaging. To date, these efforts have gone unanswered.
However, a recent petition by The Sugar Association and a public lawsuit against 7UP® have thrust the debate into the public spectrum. Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) announced plans to sue Cadbury Schweppes for touting 7UP® as a "100% Natural" product. The crux of the lawsuit involves 7UP®’s use of high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient CSPI deems far from natural.
"Pretending that soda made with high fructose corn syrup is ‘all natural’ is just plain old deception," Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, said. "High fructose corn syrup isn’t something you could cook up from a bushel of corn in your kitchen, unless you happen to be equipped with centrifuges, hydroclones, ion-exchange columns and buckets of enzymes."
The debate regarding the "naturalness" of high fructose corn syrup will remain unresolved until the federal government offers an official definition of the term "natural." The Sugar Association petitioned FDA in February 2006 to establish specific rules and regulations governing the definition of "natural" before a "natural" claim can be made. Unfortunately, FDA has failed to reach a decision on this petition despite calls for action from most in the food industry and even the FDA itself. In 1993, the FDA stated that an official "natural" definition would result in fewer misleading claims. More than 15 years later though, FDA has still not defined the term, instead falling back on the informal definition, which encompasses foods absent of artificial or synthetic ingredients.
The Sugar Association petitioned FDA to define the term "natural" based on USDA’s regulations of the use of the "natural" claim on meat and poultry products. The definition allows the "natural" claim when:
- A food does not contain anything artificial or synthetic
- A food or food ingredient is not more than minimally processed
The association further defines minimally processed ingredients as "when the processing does not affect the natural character of the food or its molecular structure is identical to that present in the raw material from which it was physically separated."
Both Sara Lee Food & Beverage and Flowers Foods follow similar internal guidelines for their "natural" offerings. For most bakeries, the difficulty in attaining "natural" products derives from dough conditioners and chemical preservatives.
For example, Flowers Foods’ Nature’s Own brand has always been free of artificial preservatives, colors and flavors, Anderson states, but the company had to use "natural" dough conditioners to market the products as "all natural."
Rushing to judgment
FDA’s inaction on defining "natural" has confounded many in the food industry. This parallels the organic industry, which for years begged for official guidelines to bring credibility to the claim.
However, shortly after official organic guidelines were released, criticism began. This criticism has intensified recently as multinational companies turn to organic products to boost sales. Wal-Mart, for example, has drawn praise and disdain for their involvement in the organic category. Many food executives, for examples, praise Wal-Mart for recognizing the legs of the organic trend and striking while the iron is hot. Conversely, many organic pioneers decry global companies for hijacking the organic category and lessening the standards of the regulations through the use of "organic factory farms."
This debate has caused a rift in the organic industry and spurred calls for further regulations. Similarly, the use of "natural" claims also has divided the "purists" from the "capitalists."
Regardless of which side of the fence a high-volume baker sits on these issues, one thing is clear. Organic and "natural" claims are valuable to bakers seeking to capitalize on the growing segment of label-reading consumers.
Gauging "natural" attitudes
1. Do you think the government should provide regulations for food manufacturers to follow when food manufacturers make a natural claim on foods and beverages or do you think the government should not be involved in providing these types of regulations?
83% Yes, government should provide regulations
2. If a product contains anything artificial or synthetic do you think it can still be considered natural?
12% Yes, it can be considered natural
3. Does the amount of a processing or the processing technique impact whether or not a food should be considered natural, even if it does not contain any artificial or synthetic ingredients?
52% Yes, processing matters for a natural claim
4. If a product goes through processing that alters the raw material, such as turning a starch into a sweetener, can it still be considered natural and labeled as such on packaging?
32% Yes, it can be considered natural