By Peter Rejcek
Only four months after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declined to define natural for food and beverage companies seeking further clarification on the word's use in product labeling, an online news outlet reported in April that the federal regulatory agency does not consider high-fructose corn syrup a natural ingredient based on its current policy regarding the term. In several articles published by Decision News Media in its e-newsletters in early April, an FDA official at the agency's Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements said that because high-fructose corn syrup is produced using synthetic fixing agents, it doesn't qualify as natural under the FDA's policy.
A media spokesman for the FDA who declined to be identified told The Natural Foods Merchandiser that the agency has not established a formal definition for the term natural. "However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances," he said.
HFCS fails to meet the criteria, he added, and any product claiming to be all-natural or 100 percent-natural containing HFCS would be considered mislabeled. "If something is natural, it shouldn't contain synthetic components," the FDA spokesman said.
The corn-based sweetener has been on the front lines in the ongoing struggle to establish guidelines for natural products similar to those that govern the organics industry. Even coventional food manufacturers such as Downers Grove, Ill.-based Sara Lee Corp. have petitioned the FDA for additional guidance on the term.
A representative for Sara Lee declined to comment for this story. In the company's petition to the FDA on April 9, 2007, Sara Lee requested the FDA work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a uniform regulation "that would simplify the marketplace for consumers and manufacturers alike â€¦"
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has aggressively targeted companies claiming 100 percent natural that contain HFCS. It forced Cadbury Schweppes, the London-based manufacturer of 7UP, to drop the claim on its labels last year.
The question of whether an ingredient qualifies as natural really boils down to processing, according to Daniel Fabricant, vice president of science and quality assurance at the Natural Products Association in Washington, D.C. If something requires more complex manipulation than what Fabricant called "kitchen chemistry," then its claim of natural seems dubious.
As far as the FDA policy on HFCS, Fabricant said, "I think that would be a position that we woulddefinitely support."
The Corn Refiners Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing the corn refining industry, dismissed the online news report in a statement as the opinion of one FDA employee. "In fact, the official FDA position on products made with HFCS is unchanged, and those products can be described as natural under current regulations," CRA argued. "HFCS contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA's requirements for the use of the term natural."
The FDA declined to comment on the CRA statement, but the agency spokesman confirmed, "What was expressed [in the news report] is FDA's position."
Peter Rejcek is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p. 1