Fortifying the Natural Way

December 20, 2006

16 Min Read
Fortifying the Natural Way

Photo: Fortitech, Inc.

The descriptor natural has taken on many meanings in the United States. Its a term that continues to stir controversy among all parties involved in food manufacturing and regulationand one that is not likely to be regulated in the very near future, due to financial cuts at FDA, coupled with higher-priority issues.

Regardless, the natural sector shows much promise as sales continue to annually increase in step with the range of available products. When it comes to fortification, product designers have a growing arsenal of ingredient options that can add healthful benefits to natural products.

Define to preserve trust 

The U.S. food industry lacks a definition for natural for ingredients as well as finished products, making it difficult to pin down natural fortification. Its absence has been noticed, and many in the industry want to see this void filled.

In a recent poll of 1,000 consumers by Harris Interactive, Rochester, NY, on behalf of The Sugar Association Inc., Washington, D.C., 83% of respondents said there should be regulations for natural claims made by food manufacturers, and 85% said that any food containing anything artificial or synthetic should not be considered natural. Consumers also agreed that the amount of processing (52%) and/or whether a raw material is altered (60%) should disqualify a product from making a natural claim. Consumers are increasingly confused by food-labeling claims, says Andy Briscoe, president, The Sugar Association.

Consumers in our survey overwhelmingly agreed that FDA should adopt the natural standards set forth by USDA for meat and poultry as the standard for all foods wishing to make a natural claim.

Manufacturers can pretty much call anything natural these days. The way it works right now is that natural is anything the marketer says it means, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor, Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University. Even USDAs definition leaves lots of room for interpretation.

USDA allows the term natural on meat and poultry labels if the product contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed, which USDA defines as processing that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. Also, the label must explain the use of the term natural. For example, a product labeled natural turkey burgers needs to specify things such as no added colorings or artificial ingredients and minimally processed on a label.

A growing number of consumers have already made the value judgment that natural foods and ingredients are important when purchasing foods and beverages for themselves and their families, adds Briscoe. Further, for those companies deciding to manufacture or market natural products, a clear, consumer-friendly definition of the term natural would provide the very continuity such claims require and would help eliminate misleading practices.

Unlucky 13 

Theres no doubt that an official definition by FDA for making a natural claim on foods and beverages is long overdue. In fact, many believe it should have happened 13 years ago, in 1993, when the majority of FDAs Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) was implemented. The agency cited resource limitations and other agency priorities as reasons for not defining natural in NLEA, instead maintaining the previous informal policy of general principles.

Thirteen years later, this omission has come back to haunt the agency. In fact, on March 1, 2006, The Sugar Association filed a formal petition requesting that FDA undertake rulemaking to establish specific rules and regulations governing the definition of natural before a natural claim can be labeled on foods and beverages regulated by the FDA.

The petition highlights the importance of two criteria for making a natural claim on foods and beverages. First, the food does not contain anything artificial or synthetic. Second, a food or food ingredient is not more than minimally processed. These criteria are consistent with USDAs definition.

All this discussion on defining natural comes at a time when consumer interest in natural and organic products is enjoying steady growth on the back of increased health awareness. According to the Iowa State University Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Ames, the combination natural/organic food category has grown significantly since 1990, increasing fourfold in the decade after and averaging 14% annual growth (compared to historic growth rate of 4% in the overall food industry).

Making the natural cut 

The Sugar Associations petition suggests that a minimally processed food ingredient can be claimed as natural only when processing does not affect the natural character of the food, or when its molecular structure is identical to that present in the raw material from which it was physically separated.

This would mean that hydrogenation processes for oils and breakdown processes for starchchemical, enzymatic, etc.for bulking agents and texturizers would no longer be permitted for ingredients used in natural food products. Furthermore, the petition states that any product manufactured from a process using extracted enzyme systems designed solely to increase efficiency of specialized molecular degradation remains a chemical process. It also states that a substances mere presence in nature should not be a qualifying factor for a natural claim.

Basically, when an ingredient or food component is manufactured by extraordinary processing, the resultant product, even if it exists somewhere in nature, should not automatically qualify it as natural.

For the time being, little guidance exists to help designers and marketers truthfully develop and label a natural food or beverage. However, based on the predicted path for official natural definition and current sentiment on the subject, several potential natural fortification options exist.

Naturally boosting nutrients 

The best way to boost the nutrient contents of processed and prepared foods is to formulate with ingredients that have naturally high nutrient contents, says Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Maine, Orono. For example, if a high-fiber bread is on the development board, start with whole-grain flour. For an energy-sports bar, use minimally processed fruit purée that contains high levels of vitamins and fiber and naturally provides carbohydrates.

The same goes for vegetable-based beverages. Carrots are packed with vitamin Ano wonder V8 Splash® provides 100% of the Daily Value for this nutrient, says Camire. Diced carrots can have a similar effect on soups, rice dishes and other mixes.

Depending on whom you talk to, formulating with highly concentrated fruit and vegetable extracts may qualify as natural. For example, LycoRed Corp., Orange, NJ, offers a tomato lycopene complex that is an extract from non-GMO tomatoes bred especially for high lycopene content. In addition, it contains other phytonutrients that act in synergy with lycopene, such as phytoene, phytofluene, tocopherols and beta carotene.

Lyc-O-Mato comes in lycopene concentrations starting at 6% and going as high as 15%, says Dave Thomas, director, marketing and business development, LycoRed Corp. The ingredient is sold to product developers as either a viscous, dark-red liquid or powder.

Lycopene, an open-chain unsaturated carotenoid that imparts the red color to tomatoes, guava, rose hips, watermelon and pink grapefruit, has been shown to help reduce the risk of prostate and some other forms of cancer, heart disease and other ailments. Research shows that the body absorbs tomato lycopene if processed into juice, paste, purée or powder. This is because the chemical form of lycopene found in tomatoes is converted by the temperature changes involved in processing, rendering it more readily absorbed. However, whether such processing is minimal enough to secure natural credentials is subject to debate.

GNT USA, Inc., Tarrytown, NY, markets a line of fruit and vegetable extracts made from fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables. The liquid concentrates are described as gently processed to maintain their native nutrients and phytochemicals.

In a natural state, fruits and vegetables are comprised of 80% water. We remove the water, leaving behind solid materials such as minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and other things naturally found in these products, says Stefan Hake, CEO, GNT USA, Inc. We also standardize the levels of anthocyanins and carotenoids to get consistent levels of phytochemicals.

We dont make antioxidants, nature does, Hake adds. GNT simply makes them available to customers in a standardized form. Using ripe fruits and vegetables from our controlled harvests and a gentle process without chemical solvents is the key. The Nutrifood line includes various products designed to deliver varying levels of different types of fruits and vegetables, including carrots, pumpkin, berries, tomatoes and grapes.

Vegetable Juices, Inc., Bedford Park, IL, markets vegetable concentrates and juices for use in beverage products. The clarified ingredients allow for a full vegetable serving to go into a serving of a fruit beverage with minimal aroma, color and flavor interference, the company says. A nonthermal concentration process gently removes water from vegetable juice and a proprietary separation technology helps achieve natural clarity while delivering maximum nutrition.

From the ground up 

Another natural fortification opportunity exists by formulating foods with flax. The carbohydrate in flax includes sugars, phenolic acids, lignans and hemicellulose. Its fat provides a healthy fatty-acid profile but its high level of unsaturates makes it susceptible to oxidation.

Flax oil contains about 73% polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), 18% monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and 9% saturated fat. The PUFA portion contains about 16% omega-6 fatty acids, mainly linoleic acid (LA), and 57% omega-3 fatty acids, mainly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Both LA and ALA are essential fatty acids that ultimately affect important physiological functions like blood pressure, platelet aggregation, cell growth and division, inflammatory responses and more.

Flaxseeds protein is free of gluten, and its phenolic acidsabout 8 to 10 mg per gram of flaxappear to have antioxidant, anticancer and antimicrobial activities. Flaxseeds lignans are considered phytoestrogens, so they affect human hormone metabolism. For example, they help balance hormone levels, such as estrogen, in the body. Theyve also been found to help reduce menopause symptoms, similar to the effects of soy phytoestrogens.

Flaxseed, with its mild, somewhat nutlike flavor, is showing up in many grain-based foods carrying a natural label. This includes bread, cereal and pasta. It is considered a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, as compared to marine- and algae-derived sources.

Current techniques for obtaining the omega-3s docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from marine and algae sources include degumming, neutralization, bleaching, and deodorizing to remove nontriglycerides, such as free fatty acids and oxidized components, that reduce quality and create off-flavors. This can prevent marketers who are pursuing natural formulations from using these omega-3s, even though research points to DHA and EPA as providing the benefits associated with omega-3s. The ALA in flaxseed is converted by the body to DHA and EPA, but only to a limited extent, so its certainly not the most efficient way to build up omega-3s in the body.

Flaxseed is an economical solution for adding omega-3 fatty acids to baked goods, but savvy consumers are starting to look for DHA and EPA, not the ALA provided by flax, says Camire. Flaxseed must be ground in order for the lipid to be bioavailable, thus formulations should also include antioxidants to protect the omega-3 as well as sensory quality.

Fiberous solutions 

Fiber fortification is one area where it is less difficult to find natural fortification ingredients. In addition to fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains, hydrocolloids also contribute fiber to products. Most hydrocolloids are also considered natural even by Whole Foods standards. Dietary fiber is basically comprised of plant-based materials not easily broken down by the human digestive system.

Hydrocolloids, including gum arabic, guar gum and xanthan gum, naturally contribute fiber to product formulations. At the same time, they offer functionality, such as building viscosity and keeping ingredients in suspension, says Jenny Norton, food scientist, TIC Gums, Inc., Belcamp, MD.

Gums have always been an excellent source of soluble dietary fiber. Compared to 12% soluble fiber found in oat fiber, water-soluble gums contain at least 80% soluble fiber and, depending on the hydrocolloid of choice, do not drastically alter the finished viscosity or flavor of a product, adds Norton. She notes that fiber fortification is becoming more of a trend with consumers, citing a recent survey that said 50% of consumers report that increasing their fiber intake was important to them.

Somebut not allresistant starches are also considered dietary fiber. In general, carbohydrates can be divided into two groups: those that are digested in the small intestine and those that are not. Natural resistant starch used as food ingredients begins with high-amylose corn hybrids produced through traditional plant breeding. Other naturally occurring sourcese.g., green-banana flour, uncooked potato, etc.do not have the process tolerance offered by high-amylose corn, says Rhonda Witwer, business development manager of nutrition, National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ.

According to the company, both their corn flour and corn meal Himaize ® ingredients are excellent sources of resistant starch and meet guidelines for natural labeling.

Designers can add the specially processed corn flour and corn meal to extruded, puffed and flaked cereals; batters and breadings; and specialty baked products where they are able to increase the dietary-fiber content while providing a high degree of functionality. In ready-to-eat cereals they help maintain crunchiness, while in batters and breadings they improve adhesion, color and texture. Also, fat absorption is potentially reduced in some formulations. Hi-maize Corn Flour 150 and Himaize Corn Meal 150 both contain 50% insoluble fiber.

Natural high-amylose, corn-derived resistant-starch ingredients that analyze as dietary fiber can be listed as fiber on the Nutrition Facts panel on product labels. The resistant starches are usually designated simply as corn starch or resistant corn starch on labels, while the Hi-maize flours and meals are listed as corn flour or corn meal.

Going with your gut 

Designers can include inulin and fructooligosaccharides in the group of fiber ingredients permitted in many foods bearing natural claims. Inulin is described as a chicory fiber extract and is extremely compatible with low-viscosity products, including dairy-based beverages, as it contributes little viscosity itself. Inulin is about 90% dietary fiber; this varies by supplier and ingredient. It gives prebiotic benefits at about 5 grams per day.

Fructooligosaccharides, particulary the short-chain version referred to as scFOS, are ingredients derived from cane or beet sugar via a natural fermentation process. scFOS does not contribute to viscosity, yet provides mouthfeel without causing the gelation of liquids.

Both inulin and fructooligosaccharides are used for fiber enrichment, as well as to help replace fat and sugar, enhance texture and mouthfeel, and add prebiotic benefits.

Prebiotic fibers are digested by some beneficial bacteria after ingestion and transport to the lower intestine. This increases the levels or activities of beneficial bacteriaprobioticsin the gut, which in turn generates numerous positive effects in the body, including helping build immunity.

Probiotics are defined as live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host. Most probiotic products contain lactobacillus bacteria or bifidobacteria. 

Other bacteria, including nonpathogenic types of Escherichia, enterococcus, bacillus and saccharomyces (a yeast), hold promise as probiotics. At a minimum, probiotic products should be safe, effective and should maintain their effectiveness and potency throughout the products shelf life. This requires a responsible approach both by the producer and the consumer.

Probiotics are grown in isolation and are often spray- or freeze-dried and sold as an ingredient. As long as genetic modification does not enter into the process, the food industry seems to accept that probiotics are natural, minimally processed ingredients.

Odds and ends 

Other extras that can currently be found in products bearing natural claims range from plant extracts to isolated milk components.

Nonfat dry milk and whey powder both contribute protein and calcium, and their bland taste mixes well with a variety of foods, says Camire. Both are natural and derived from milk.

For fortification with a more-concentrated calcium source, Glanbia Nutritionals Inc., Monroe WI, starts with milk and makes an isolated calcium that contains other essential minerals, forming a mineral complex with 100% natural milk calcium. This white, free-flowing powder contains 24% calcium and 13% phosphorus, which is a ratio recommended for bone growth and increased bone density.

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is naturally present in cows milk and beef, can also be sourced from safflower oil. Cognis Nutrition & Health, LaGrange, IL, markets a form of CLA, which the company describes as a natural ingredient created using a proprietary process that converts the linoleic acid in safflower oil to CLA. As with many ingredients, the question is whether this proprietary process is minimal enough to be used in natural foods.

The company also markets a cholesterol- lowering phytosterol ingredient line described as natural plant sterols and sterol esters. The portfolio now includes four new non-GMO and identity-preserved ingredients for the strictest of labeling requirements.

Botanicals and herbs are the final categories of ingredients found in products with natural claims. From grape seed extract to green tea and ginger to ginseng, these natural ingredients provide a point of differentiation for many marketers.

To be natural, or not to be natural. For now, such distinctions are in the eyes of the marketer, the retailer and the consumer. That is, until FDA steps in and defines this term that rightfully belongs to Mother Nature.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 11 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].

Natural Alignment

Photo: TIC Gums, Inc.

Those pondering the definition of natural might wish to take heed of the battle brewing over the use of the word in the sweetener industry.

The recent petition filed by The Sugar Association, Washington, D.C., calling for FDA to define natural claims that the lack of a formal definition has resulted in misleading claims and consumer confusion. This claim suggests that not all nutritive sweeteners are natural, which is something that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Washington, D.C., also known as the food police, agrees with.

On May 11, 2006, CSPI sent a legal notice to Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, Plano, TX, stating its intent to sue the company if it does not stop touting that the uncola7UP®is 100% natural. Although this soda no longer contains several artificial ingredients, in the eyes of CSPI, at least one remains: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Pretending that soda made with HFCS is all natural is just plain old deception, says Michael Jacobson, executive director, CSPI. High-fructose corn syrup isnt 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.

In other words, HFCS is not minimally processed. It does not meet USDAs definition of natural and, if FDA heeds The Sugar Associations petition and issues a legal definition for natural, HFCS wont be natural anymore.

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