When it comes to labeling food and beverage products as "natural," lack of regulatory oversight leaves room for legal bantering, which has landed several companiesincluding Chobani, ConAgra, Costco and Cargill, among othersthe subjects of lawsuits filed on behalf of products' natural claims.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not taken a firm position on the matter, leaving the waters cloudy for food and beverage manufacturers. According to FDA: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."
While manufacturers are likely content with FDA's non-decision on the matter, food developers looking for regulatory clarity about ingredients they can use in foods with a natural claim are likely not.
In certain casesas in with color regulationsFDA is abundantly clear; however, even some colors considered "natural" are encountering consumer pushback.
Carmine, a colorant derived from the female cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus costa), is one such ingredient. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) launched a petition urging Dannon to color their fruit yogurt with berries instead of bugs. And Starbucks encountered well-publicized criticism from vegetarians and others for the use of cochineal extract in its Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino, and subsequently switched to lycopene, a natural, tomato-based extract.
Certain spices, including paprika and turmeric, as well as annatto, a carotenoid from annatto seeds, fall into the natural color selection. Anthocyanins are another category of natural colorants, and include elderberry, purple carrot, purple sweet potato and grape.
Further, to avoid a scenario like that of Chobani's recent Mucor circinelloides contaminationin which the company voluntarily recalled 35 varieties of yogurt after more than 200 consumers filed complaints of illness with FDAmanufacturers must ensure proper processing methods are in place. Dairy processors specifically can benefit from adding appropriate cultures to products, which have a natural ability to inhibit specific contamination flora, such as visible mold and yeasts, as well as growth control of Listeria.
Foods that contain fat, such as fish oil, salad dressings (mayonnaise) and fried foods, are subject to other hurdles, like oxidation and the development of off odors, flavors and colors. There are several ways to control and manage oxidation, including reformulation and packaging. And while synthetic antioxidants such as BHA and BHT have fallen from consumer favor, natural antioxidants, such as rosemary extract, can provide a consumer-friendly label.
For a closer look at formulating natural products, visit Food Product Design's FoodTech Toolbox: Exploring Natural Ingredients Alternatives.