HOT TOPIC – How Natural is Natural

September 24, 2013

With a major food ingredients conference coming up in November and lawsuits in the U.S. accusing companies of making empty promises, Ketchum Bites asked journalist Nicola Carslaw to explore the question: how natural is natural?

Most agree that a lab-grown burger is not what we commonly understand to be “natural.” We‘re awe-struck by the science, but equally, perhaps, we may hold up our hands in horror at the prospect of a future of fridges full of “Frankenburgers.”

Suspicion about genetically modified foods simmers on, too, and those in favour still have a long way to go before convincing consumers about any benefits.  Yet, we’ve been consuming for years ingredients which have been “doctored” for our dinner plates, in spite of the fact that the thought of eating any type of food created in a laboratory is unappetizing.

Foods with artificial colours and flavourings are not in the same league as GMOs or artificially-grown meat protein whose source is a stem-cell, but most products sold in our supermarkets have ingredients which have been placed under a microscope, tried and tested for market. After all, food safety and quality are pre-requisites.

While individual ingredients that can be legitimately called “natural” are being launched all the time, research suggests that the weight of “natural” claims is waning. In the US, the number of new products launched with “all natural” claims has dropped markedly since 2010, according to Mintel. In the EU, the number has remained stagnant and this year’s launches are, so far, down on last year’s.

But while there seems to be a move away from developing and marketing ‘all natural’ products there is, according to food scientists, a growing trend towards the reformulation of foods so that they contain only natural colourings and flavourings.

Emma Gubish, strategic insight manager for Leatherhead Food Research, says the “natural” claim still does have power, but emblazoning it across product packaging as a term in isolation is no longer enough. “Consumers are becoming more skeptical and wise to the fact that ‘natural’ leaves too much unsaid.” What’s more, as legal action in the States shows, there is the risk of being challenged for making a “natural” claim.”

Natural confusion

Amid growing litigation in the U.S., there’s pressure on the Food and Drug Administration for clarity on what is “natural.” Currently, it defines it as “no artificial or synthetic ingredients.” In the EU, too, companies complain of confusion, with different countries having differing interpretations of what is natural and what is not.

While there is no definition under EU law, with the exception of natural flavourings used in food, the main principle is that food labeling and information must not be misleading. So it’s down to each national authority, such as the UK’s Food Standards Agency, to ensure that foods that erroneously refer to “natural food” are not placed on the market.

Ironically perhaps, according to Rachel Wilson, principal technical adviser on ingredients at Leatherhead Food Research, the use of “natural” products in foods involves a great deal more laboratory work than synthetic products. “It is not straightforward to replace an artificial additive with a natural one,” she says. “This is because some natural colours are less stable, less long-lasting and therefore have a shorter shelf-life. If you are using a natural colouring in a soft drink it is important to test it over time to see how it is reacts – and although we can accelerate the process in the lab it is not straightforward. The challenge is to research and develop a product while ensuring costs are kept low so that it’s palatable in every sense for consumers.”

Research by the Netherlands-based ingredients company, DSM, suggests that consumers believe it’s a given that their products should be natural and simple. They now also expect their food to taste home-made. They want the minimum number of ingredients – certainly no more than four – which they recognise and trust, such as onion and garlic: nothing synthetic or scientific-sounding.

The DSM study finds that of those who check labels, nearly half (46%) are looking for information about additives and this figure rises to 76% in China and 53% in Poland. The study suggests that consumers use the number of ingredients listed in a product as a key indicator of how processed a food is, and that what they want to see is a short list of recognisable ingredients that they could find in their own kitchens.

Increased use of ‘natural’ additives

European Union (EU) legislation requires most additives used in foods to be labelled clearly in the list of ingredients, with their function, followed by either their name or E number. An E number means that it has passed safety tests and has been approved for use here and in the rest of the EU.

However, consumers often – and mistakenly – think an E number is unnatural, according to Rachel Wilson at Leatherhead Food Research. She says many additives are derived or extracted from natural ingredients and yet consumers see the E number on the label and think it must be a chemical, with all the unsavoury connotations that chemicals in food seem to have in the minds of shoppers.

She says: “For example, ice cream and yoghurt contain thickeners derived from seaweed – sodium alginate. This is also known as E401. This additive is extracted from seaweed and when you think of seaweed you think it is of course ‘natural.’  But when consumers see ‘sodium alginate’ or E401 they perceive it not to be natural but artificial.”

There is a similar problem for Xanthan gum, or E415.  It is a microbial fermentation product often used in salad dressings. But research suggests that consumers associate any food ingredient with an “X” as chemical or medical and therefore unnatural. But if you substitute the “X” word with an “E” number, the mis-perception persists. It’s a tough old world for food marketers.

What is natural?

With regard to flavourings, EU legislation (Regulation (EC) Number 1334/2008) sets out a definition for “natural flavouring substances” as well as specific requirements concerning the use of the term ‘natural’ flavourings. In that respect, where the term ‘natural’ is used to describe a flavour, the flavouring components should be entirely of natural origin and the source of the flavourings should be labelled.

The Food Standards Agency’s food advisory committee (FAC) considers that in the context of food, “natural” means essentially that the product consists of natural ingredients – those produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man. The FAC feels that it is misleading to use the term to describe foods or ingredients that employ chemicals to change their composition or comprise the products of new technologies.

The authority says that processes such as freezing, concentration, pasteurisation and sterilisation, while helping make food safe and preserving it, do not meet consumer expectations of ‘natural’ foods. However, the process to which a natural product has been subjected can be described using these terms, which is why you can see on the label a description such as “pasteurised natural lemon juice.”

The FAC feels that claims such as “natural goodness,” “naturally better,” or “nature’s way” are largely meaningless and should not be used.

Added facts

What are the different types of additives?

Food additives are grouped by what they do. The additives that you are most likely to come across on food labels are:

  • antioxidants (stop food becoming rancid or changing colour by reducing the chance of fats combining with oxygen)
  • colours
  • emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners (help to mix or thicken ingredients)
  • flavour enhancers (used to bring out the flavour of foods)
  • preservatives (used to keep food safer for longer)
  • sweeteners (intense sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar whereas bulk sweeteners have a similar sweetness to sugar)

Kate is a Practice Director at Ketchum’s London office.