Why has “natural” become so contentious? These 10 offenders are a big part of the reason.
Though most consider it synonymous with terms like “healthy,” “clean,” and “nontoxic,” the word “natural” is notoriously tough to pin down. Eula Biss—author of the 2014 book On Immunity: An Inoculation—writes in the Atlantic that the word “implies a medicine untroubled by human limitations, contrived wholly by nature or God or perhaps intelligent design.”
Even there, though, things can get tricky. What to make of citric acid, for example? It occurs naturally in fruits like oranges and lemons. But as an added ingredient, it is often produced through chemical processes and might be derived from genetically engineered sugars. The battle cry of the non-GMO movement—“you deserve to know what’s in your food”—extends to additives, ingredients, and preservatives we often see on Nutrition Facts panels but don’t fully understand.
Consumer concerns about overly processed foods helped fuel the explosion of grocery products labeled “natural.” Though use of the word for marketing purposes began with food brands dedicated to ingredient transparency and health, mainstream brands soon followed suit, slapping “all natural” on products ranging from Goldfish to Rold Gold Pretzels to Naked Juice.
And it worked. According to a 2014 Nielsen report, “natural” labels help sell almost $41 billion worth of food products in the year ending February 15, 2014. Through careless overuse, “natural” lost all meaning as a labeling term, going from helpful guidepost to clichéd buzzword.
As shoppers realized they could no longer trust the word, they began filing lawsuits. The first such lawsuit was filed in 2003, it was a few years before the litigation really took off. In 2011, 49 such lawsuits were filed. In 2012, the number was 85. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) played an instrumental role, filing lawsuits against, among others, Crystal Light and Kashi Cereal for labeling as “natural” products containing artificial color and genetically engineered ingredients, respectively.
In some cases, the mere filing of the lawsuits was enough to prompt change. Pepperidge Farm removed “natural” from its Goldfish crackers in the face of 2013 class action suit. PepsiCo dropped the term from packaging for its Naked Juice line and settled a consolidated class action lawsuit for $9 million. As the costs mounted, attorneys like Justin Prochnow, who specializes in food-industry issues, started to discourage food companies from using “natural” on any product “unless you’ve literally pulled it out of the ground yourself and stuck it in a box.”
Yet “natural” is still rampant. According to New Hope Natural Media’s NEXT Trend Database, a full 25 percent of the more than 71,000 products exhibited at the Natural Products Expos since March 2013 made such claims, mostly in the snack category, which includes cookies and candy.
While Steve Gardner, director of litigation for CSPI, doesn’t believe that lawsuits alone will solve the debate over "natural" claims, he says there’s little forward momentum without them. “Until FDA does take action, lawsuits are the only option to address the numerous natural deceptions. And the evidence is that they are working,” he says. “But FDA action would be the best course.” Government input won’t come anytime soon, however. In the face of increasing lawsuits around “natural,” a group of judges requested in January 2014 that the FDA produce a legal definition of the term. Officials declined, stating that the request carried too many “complexities” for the administration’s limited resources.
So if neither lawsuits nor the FDA can adequately define “natural,” perhaps manufacturers shouldn’t use the term at all. In June, Consumer Reports petitioned the both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban the word from food packaging. “Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the natural food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the ‘natural’ label, because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing and deceptive,” said Urvashi Rangan, executive director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, in a statement. “We also don’t believe it is necessary to define ‘natural’ when there is already another label—‘organic’—that comes much closer to meeting consumer expectations and is accompanied by legal accountability.”
That might be an incomplete solution.
True, USDA Organic contains strict standards of what certain foods can or cannot contain. But organic is expensive. Plus, if “natural” were banned, food manufacturers would simply move on to another unregulated and vaguely appealing word. Think “clean,” “fresh” or “wholesome.” “Natural” would be gone, but consumer confusion would remain.
Clearing the confusion
We at New Hope Natural Media are confident that we can move toward a satisfactory definition of “natural” by, for starters, agreeing on what isn’t natural. In an effort to do just that, we’ve already banned 21 ingredients—including sucralose, saccharin, and artificial flavors and colors—from our Natural Products Expos. “It’s important to list unacceptable ingredients in an effort to harmonize a baseline industry standard for what is ‘not natural,’” explains Steve Taormina, standards director at New Hope.
But while classifying FD&C Red 40 and aspartame as non-natural is easy, other substances, like the aforementioned citric acid, are more complicated. So here, based on interviews with ingredient experts, food scientists, and chemists, are the fine points on 10 ingredients that have drawn ire. Defining “natural” won’t be easy, but informed discourse is a good start. As CSPI’s Gardner says, “Industry as a whole can help by being a part of a negotiated rulemaking process.”
What it is: An inexpensive, non-sweet, low-calorie powder derived from starchy grains; vegetables like corn, potatoes, rice, cassava; or, in Europe, wheat. Manufacturers use heat, acids, and/or food-grade enzymes to reduce the starch to a short chain of small, swiftly absorbed glucose molecules. Some “resistant maltodextrin” difficult to digest.
What it’s used for: It’s ubiquitous in sports gels, drinks, and bars, due to its ability to thicken products without adding a lot of sweetness, and its ease of digestibility. “It is one of the fastest-burning carbohydrates on the market making it an excellent option for sports nutrition products,” says sports nutritionist Marie Spano, noting that athletes use it to get energy during a workout and replenish glycogen stores in the muscles afterward. It’s also used to add texture to baked goods, moisture to low-fat products like salad dressings, and bulk to artificial sweeteners. In recent years, companies have used resistant maltodextrin to bolster fiber content in processed foods.
The concerns: In 2012, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against Nature Valley for marketing its granola bars as “natural” despite the presence of “highly processed” maltodextrin and high-fructose corn syrup. “They do not exist in nature, and not even under the most elastic possible definition could they be considered ‘natural,’” said CSPI Director Michael Jacobson. CSPI also recently called out Cascadian Farms for using resistant maltodextrin as a “fake fiber” in its granola bars, noting that “unlike bran and other unprocessed, intact fibers, most isolated, processed fibers do a poor job of preventing constipation or lowering blood cholesterol.” Others note that the primary source of maltodextrin is genetically modified corn, and that some products could be made with wheat. “Those with celiac disease or a wheat allergy should verify that the maltodextrin in their product is not made from wheat,” says Spano.
What the science says: GMOs and allergies aside, some researchers have raised a different concern about maltodextrin—that it may alter gut bacteria, thereby exacerbating gastrointestinal problems like Crohn’s disease. A July 2014 study by Christine McDonald, PhD, a researcher with the Cleveland Clinic specializing in irritable bowel disorder, showing that mice exposed to maltodextrin suffered a breakdown of anti-microbial defenses in their gut, enabling salmonella to proliferate. Lab studies have shown that it can also promote growth of E-coli.
How industry is responding: Ingredient company Austrade Inc. now offers a Non-GMO Project Certified maltodextrin derived from corn and waxy maize. Other companies have rolled out organic tapioca maltodextrin made from cassava and relying on enzymes rather than harsh chemicals in the manufacturing process. Some sports nutrition companies, including Ignite Naturals, now make maltodextrin-free products, using brown rice syrup instead.
What it is: As the FDA defines it, natural flavoring is an “essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at University of Minnesota, puts things more simply: “It is anything you extract from a plant or animal source.” In contrast, he says, artificial flavors are chemicals created in a lab, often from petroleum sources.
What it’s used for: Sales of natural flavoring have soared in recent years, taking up a growing share of the $23 billion global flavor industry, as food companies have tried to steer clear of the word “artificial” on their packaging. Often, a “flavorist” mixes dozens of compounds in a lab to make one flavor under the catchall phrase “natural flavor.”
The concerns: While FDA defines the source of the flavor, its requirements on how it is processed are vague, says food scientist Mary Mulry, PhD. “You can use methylene chloride or hexane or chloroform to extract,” she says, “and solubilize with things like propylene glycol, and add modified food starches and artificial preservatives and according to the FDA still call it a natural flavoring.”
Consumers have also expressed concern about the mystery surrounding their origins. “There may be 50 components that go into making a flavor, and the consumer has no idea what’s in there,” says Reineccius. One vanilla and raspberry flavored-ingredient called castoreum is derived from—no joke—the anal glands of beavers. (Reineccius stresses that it is used extremely rarely.) And vegetarians have expressed concern about animal products being billed as natural flavors. (Two Hindu customers sued McDonald’s for using beef-derived “natural flavor” in its fries.)
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, while deeming the category “safe,” points out another problem: “When you see that natural flavors are used in the product, that means something real, like fruit, isn’t there,” says Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with CSPI.
How industry is responding: Some manufacturers, like Bob’s Redmill have steered away from the term entirely, instead spelling out exactly what makes up that flavor. Mulry advises food manufacturers to find out exactly what sources and processes go into making their Natural Flavor before choosing it and opt for ingredients that would pass the more-strict organic standards. Karen Howard, CEO of the newly formed Organic and Natural Health Association, says that as the industry works to define “natural,” natural flavorings will likely be in trouble. “Just saying ‘natural flavors added’ will probably not be sufficient," Howard says.
What it is: Red seaweed extract. The Irish used homemade versions prepared with Chondrus crispus (more commonly known as Irish moss) for centuries to treat respiratory problems. Today, two distinct varieties of carrageenan exist in U.S. manufacturing: Food-grade or “undegraded” carrageenan is extracted with heat, water, and mild acids and alkali. “Degraded” carrageenan, a.k.a. “poligeenan,” is extracted by boiling it in much stronger acid for long periods to reduce it to a small molecule.
What it’s used for: Poligeenan is used in medical imaging (to make shakes consumed prior to an MRI) and in animal studies to induce inflammation. Some health agencies characterize it as a potential carcinogen. “It is a completely different compound, and it is never used in food,” says William Matakas, Ph.D, marketing manager for ingredient supplier FMC. Food-grade carrageenan is used as a thickener in low-fat yogurts, ice creams, dressings, and sauces and as a preservative in products like protein beverages, jams, snack bars, and infant formulas. It also turns up as a vegan alternative to gelatin. Matakas estimates the food-grade carrageenan business to be worth roughly $1 billion globally.
The concern: In April, 2012, University of Illinois researcher Joanne Tobacman, M.D., petitioned the National Organic Standards Board to ban carrageenan from organics due to mounting evidence that it prompts an inflammatory immune response similar to that of salmonella. In 2013, the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute petitioned FDA to remove carrageenan from the food supply. Both petitions were denied.
What the science says: It’s not clear. In 2014, the World Health Organization completed a review of the science (much of it industry funded), concluding that food-grade carrageenan is safe for use in infant formula. But numerous publicly funded animal and in-vitro studies suggest certain forms could impair insulin function, lead to gastrointestinal disease, and increase diabetes risk. The National Institutes of Health is now funding a human trial looking at whether a carrageenan-free diet can reduce colitis symptoms.
Food scientist Kantha Shelke, Ph.D, believes current concerns over carrageenan are largely a matter of mistaken identity. She and others note that many oft-cited studies tested degraded carrageenan (poligeenan) in lab animals, not people. “There is no epidemiological evidence for a carcinogenic, tumor-promoting, or inflammatory effect of [food-grade] carrageenan in humans,” Shelke says. Some research does suggest, however, that food-grade carrageenan can be contaminated with its more lethal cousin during the production process, and that it can become degraded by stomach acid. Matakas says the latter concern is unfounded. “Your body is about the Ph of orange juice, not battery acid,” he says. “And it isn’t boiling.”
How industry is responding: Organic Valley recently vowed to rid its heavy whipping cream and aseptic chocolate milk of carrageenan. Dean Foods promises to remove it from Horizon and Silk products by mid-2015. Companies are testing agar and gum Arabica as potential substitutes. Shelke says such moves could come at a cost, jeopardizing the safety and palatability of the finished product. (When Starbucks removed it from its milk alternatives, customers complained that it looked spoiled and didn’t’ make their coffee creamy enough.) “The rush to replace carrageenan in the food industry is a display of ignorance and lack of fortitude,” says Shelke. Meanwhile, the Cornucopia Institute has developed a shopping guide for avoiding carrageenan and intends to keep on the FDA to get it out of organics. “Even if I gave the industry the benefit of the doubt and said that the research was mixed, I would still say it should not be in organic food,” says Cornucopia Institute director Mark Kastel. “We should operate under the precautionary principal and preclude things unless there is a high degree of comfort that they are safe. We don’t have that.”
Potassium carbonate (when used as a cocoa alkalizer)
What it is: As a major component of the mined salt potash, this white powder (sometimes called pearl ash) was derived for centuries by heating potash in a kiln to remove impurities. Producers today make it synthetically by subjecting potassium chloride to an electrical current.
What it’s used for: Before the advent of baking powder, it was used as a leavening agent. (It’s still found in German gingerbread.) It’s also long been a common water softener. Today it’s also used to reduce acidity in wine and to plump up fish fillets and prevent them from discoloring. It is a key processing aid in the manufacturing of alkalized (Dutch) cocoa, enhancing color and flavor, reducing bitterness, lowering the fat content, and making it mix well in liquids. “The original reason it was used was so less cocoa could be used in a product,” says Corvus Blue food scientist Kantha Shelke, PhD. “It was a way to economize the recipe of cakes and cookies.”
The concern: In 2010, consumers filed a $5 million class action suit against Ben and Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., arguing that the company misled consumers by calling its ice cream “all natural” despite the presence of cocoa alkalized with potassium carbonate, which the suit described as “a man-made synthetic ingredient.” The suit went on to point out that the FDA states a product is not natural if it contains “synthetic substances” and added that, “unfortunately, Dutch processing destroys most of the flavonols present in cocoa.” (In January, a judge denied a request to certify the case as a class action suit, effectively killing it). In July, according to press reports, consumers filed a suit against Unilever Plc, maker of Breyers Ice Cream, for the same reason.
What the science says: According to FDA, there is no evidence that potassium carbonate poses a threat at current levels. In fact, chocolate alkalized with potassium carbonate is allowed in organic food. “I am not sure why potassium carbonate, which has been used for a century or more without any issues on cocoa, should be changed today,” says Shelke. “It is used to soften water. This would not allowed if it were dangerous.”
Still, regardless of whether or not alkalized chocolate is hazardous, numerous studies have found that non-alkalized chocolate delivers more benefit. One 2008 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that unprocessed cocoa powders contained roughly 10 times the health-promoting flavanols of heavily processed alkalized powder. In the cocoa industry, cocoa that is not alkalized is referred to as “natural.”
How industry is responding: Both Breyers and Ben and Jerry’s have changed their labels to no longer say “all natural,” and some specialty chocolate companies now boast that their products are non-alkalized.
What it is: Lecithin is a fatty substance that occurs naturally in the cell membranes of animals and plants. To make soy lecithin, manufacturers typically crush soybeans and use solvents like hexane, ethanol, acetone, ether, and benzene to extract it. Some soy lecithin is then powdered and bleached.
What it’s used for: It’s used in baked goods and boxed cake mixes to deliver more volume, softer texture, and a longer shelf-life (and to replace more expensive eggs); and in salad dressing, peanut butter, and other creamy products to keep oil and water from separating in the jar. It’s also used in pasta to build in resistance to overcooking, in candy as a cheaper replacement for cocoa, and in frozen bread and pizza dough to keep yeast supple. Choline-rich lecithin is also marketed as a dietary supplement to promote brain and nerve function. In medicine, it’s used to treat acne, boost liver function, reduce cholesterol, and prevent mastitis in nursing mothers.
The concern: Though some activists have expressed fears about trace levels of hexane and other solvents in soy lecithin, the primary concerns are over the possibility that it could cause allergic reactions in people with soy sensitivity and that it could act as a phytoestrogen. (Some physicians recommend that women at risk of breast cancer avoid all soy.) Also, most soy lecithin is made with genetically modified soy, a fact that has prompted concerns among consumers trying to avoid GMOs.
What the science says: The Food and Drug Administration says that in the typical food product where it’s present, soy lecithin makes up less than 1 percent of the volume by weight, making any exposure to solvent residue miniscule. According to Steve Taylor, Ph.D, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, the vast majority of the protein that spurs allergies is removed during processing. Still, he wrote in a 2013 report, “There is, of course, the possibility that some of the more sensitive soybean-allergic consumers might react.” For that reason, food manufacturers must list it on labels.
How industry is responding: The market for solvent-free, non-GMO, and organic soy lecithin is thriving, says Gary Bartl, who sells such soy lectin through his Austrade, Inc., ingredient company. “Demand is up and inquiries keep coming.” For those wanting to avoid soy altogether, Austrade also sells solvent-free sunflower lecithin. New Hope Natural Products Expo guidelines suggest that products containing bleached lecithin not be labeled natural. And attorney Todd Harrison says he would advise clients in the natural products industry not to use soy lecithin at all unless they can assure that it is made without GMOs. “I think you will see people being sued for calling a product with soy lecithin ‘natural,’” he explains. “I would say it is not worth the risk.”
What it is: Caramelized sugar, derived from corn, wheat, cane, beets, or other forms of simple carbohydrates. The manufacturing process varies depending on the variety. Class I or “plain,” caramel color is heated. Class II (“caustic sulfite caramel”) is used in some alcoholic beverages and involves the use of sulfites during manufacturing. Class III, often used in beer, baked goods, and confections, uses ammonium. Class IV, which makes up about three-quarter of caramel color sales, uses sulfites and ammonium. In general, the lower the class number, the lighter the color.
What is it used for: Caramel color is by far the most commonly used colorant in the industry, accounting for roughly 80 percent of all colorant use, according to ingredient supplier DD Williamson. It is ubiquitous in colas, soy sauce, seasonings, breads, cereals, and pet food.
The concern: In February 2011, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban Class III and Class IV caramel coloring, alleging that the manufacturing process contaminated both with 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazone (4 MEI), which CSPI described as carcinogenic. The organization also asked that manufacturers be prohibited from labeling products containing either of those colorants as “natural.” “Most people would interpret caramel coloring to mean ‘colored with caramel,’” says CSPI director Michael Jacobson. “This is a concentrated, dark brown mixture of chemicals that does not occur in nature.” In January 2012, California began requiring a cancer warning on products containing more than 29 micrograms of 4 MI. According to Consumer Reports, many beverages, including Pepsi One and Malta Goya, still significantly exceed those levels.
What the science says: A study by the National Toxicology Program showed an increase in certain lung tumors in mice exposed to 4 MEI, and the World Health Organization considers it a possible carcinogen. The FDA, however, points out that 4 MEI is also a byproduct of roasting coffee beans or grilling meat, and that the amount used in studies “far exceeded current estimates of human exposure.” And Campbell Barnum, VP of branding and market development at DD Williamson, adds that the rodent studies were done on 4 MEI directly, not on caramel color. “There has never been a study that has showed any safety issues with caramel color at all,” he says.
How industry is responding: Many in the natural products industry believe Class III and IV caramel color should not be present in products labeled “natural.” Both Whole Foods and Natural Products Expo, for example, permit only Class I caramel color in their offerings. Class I is now the fastest growing category and includes both organic and non-GMO options. But switching to the lighter colored Class I can increase costs, says Barnum, since producers have to use more to make the product dark. Meanwhile, concerns persist over whether Class I is even truly natural. In July, consumers filed a class-action lawsuit against Whole Foods for using caramel coloring in its 365 Everyday Value Cola. Because it’s impossible for a consumer to know the difference by looking at the label, CSPI says avoid the ingredient altogether.
What it is: Though this organic acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits, it’s not economically feasible to derive the millions of tons of citric acid used worldwide each year from fruit. Instead, most food-additive citric acid is a commodity chemical produced through fermentation, by feeding simple carbohydrates to Aspergillus niger mold. Calcium hydroxide and sulfuric acid are often used in processing. “We would all love to think that citric acid comes from an orange, but it does not,” says Mary Mulry, PhD, a food scientist and founder of consulting firm FoodWise. “It comes from a chemical process.” Pfizer was the leading producer of citric acid for decades. Today, major suppliers include Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill.
What it’s used for: The U.S. alone produces more than 1.6 million tons of citric acid annually, with roughly two thirds used in foods and beverages and the rest used in detergents, pharmaceuticals, and supplements. It boosts acidity and flavor in soft drinks, juices, wines, powdered beverages, and candies and acts as a preservative and antioxidant in creams, fats, mayonnaises, dairy products, and ice creams.
The concern: Some consumer groups have questioned whether the mold residue from processing could trigger allergies. And the Organic Consumers Association, among others, points out that the processing of citric acid often involves genetically modified mold or sugars, making the substance a “hidden source of GMOs.” In 2012, plaintiffs in California filed a class-action suit against Jamba Juice for labeling its smoothie kits “all natural” even though they contained citric acid. However, a judge dismissed a similar complaint filed against AriZona Beverages in 2013, ruling that the plaintiffs’ argument relied on rhetoric and that they hadn’t introduced any evidence whatsoever that citric acid and HFCS are not natural.
What the science says: According to Dr. Phil Lieberman, of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, there have been rare reports of citric acid sensitivity in the medical literature, but there is no evidence linking it to mold residue. “It is highly unlikely that there is mold contained within citric acid preparations,” he wrote in a post on the AAAAI website. “And there is nothing that I could find in the medical literature which documents asthmatic responses to the ingestion of citric acid because of mold allergens. Mulry says the controversy over citric acid is not about allergies but, rather, whether or not it involves GMOs as a starting material.
How industry is responding: The Center for Science in the Public Interest classifies citric acid as “safe” on its list of food additives. But in light of concerns about citric acid, some companies have begun to roll out non-GMO versions.
What it is: Also known as cochineal extract, carmine is a deep red acid expelled from the bodies of dead cochineal beetles when they are crushed. According to Chr. Hansen, the market leader for natural colors, it is resistant to oxidation and holds its hue in the presence of light and heat. “It’s a stable red color and those are hard to get,” says food scientist Mary Mulry Ph.D, of FoodWise.
What it’s used for: An alternative to petroleum-based orange, pink, red, and purple food dyes. People as far back as the Aztecs and Incas used cochineal to color textiles, and it gave British coats their distinctive red during the Revolutionary War. It fell out of favor with the advent of artificial colors in the late 1800s, then experienced a revival in the 1980s after the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of numerous artificial colors in food due to health concern. (Today, regulators allow only nine petroleum-based dyes are allowed in food.)
In 2010 carmine sales surged again following the release of studies linking artificial food dyes to ADHD, and in the face of a European Commission move to require warning labels on food products containing artificial dyes. Today, it’s used broadly in candy, ice cream, beverages, meat, fruit, yogurt, ketchup and dairy products.
The concern: In recent years, consumer groups have complained that the use of carmine puts people with bug allergies at risk and leads to vegans, vegetarians, and Kosher Jews unwittingly ingesting bugs.
While some bloggers have called out carmine as unnatural, food scientists disagree. “Carmine is as natural as the day is long,” Mulry says. “The problem is it is not vegetarian, and people don’t want to think about little squashed up bugs in their food.”
How industry is responding: The Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to require products containing carmine to say “insect derived” on the label. The FDA declined but did change the law so that, since 2011, companies have been required to list “carmine” or “cochineal extract” on the label, rather than “color added.” In 2012, Starbucks president Cliff Burrows announced that the company was transitioning away from cochineal to a lycopene-based extract for smoothies and Frappuccinos. He said the company had “fallen short of consumer expectations” by using the bug-derived colorant. In 2013, Dannon held firm in the face of consumers pressure to rid its berry yogurts of carmine, but negative media coverage and a highly volatile price for carmine have since prompted many natural products companies to shift to red colors derived from beetroots, grape skins, or tomatoes. ChR Hansen is reportedly researching a non-insect-derived carmine created via a fermentation process.
Disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate
What it is: A phosphate used as a food additive, it’s derived from mined phosphate rock which is purified to isolate the phosphorous and further processed to add sodium or other desired molecules. “It is basically a mineral that comes out of the ground and is then processed into a synthetic chemical,” says FoodWise’s Mulry.
What it’s used for: According to the International Food Additives Council, phosphates have an array of uses—as leavening agents to fluff up foods, to reduce acidity in nondairy creamers, to preserve moisture in lunchmeats, to prevent mold on bread, and to add structure to cheese. It’s also used to prevent potato products from blackening and to prevent dryness and discoloration in tuna. “Cheap seafood is often soaked in sodium phosphate,” says Mulry. “It’s a way to sell more water than seafood.”
The concern: In 2011, the FDA warned Alexia Foods, Inc., that it was mislabeling its potato products as “all natural” despite the presence of disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, which the FDA described as “a synthetic chemical preservative.”
What the science says: German researchers published a report in 2012 warning that phosphates can contribute to renal failure and cardiovascular disease when consumed in excess, and calling for clearer labeling. “Phosphate additives in food are a matter of concern” they wrote, “and their potential impact on health may well have been underappreciated.” In January 2014, the FDA issued a warning that over-the-counter sodium phosphate medications used to treat constipation should be limited to one dose every 24 hours, stating that anything more frequent could cause severe dehydration and lead to electrolyte imbalances and organ damage. The International Food Additives Council says that long-term ingestion at high levels can lead to bone and tooth decay, though the organization admits that “this concern would not be expected to occur in normal food consumption patterns.” Most experts agree that the amounts contained in individual food products are small enough to be benign.
How industry is responding: Sodium phosphates are not allowed in organic products, except in certain dairy applications for which no substitute can be found (ice creams and shelf-stable creamers). In the absence of a “natural” standard, their use is a matter of company discretion. “Companies need to be asking themselves: What are we using it for, and is it an appropriate use that is not misleading the consumer?” Mulry says. “Water retention in seafood is misleading. If you are trying to preserve the color with an artificial preservative, that is misleading. Unless it is absolutely necessary, and there is no substitute for its use, I wouldn’t allow it in a natural product.”
High-fructose corn syrup
What it is: A sweet food additive derived from corn. Producers use enzymes, acids, and other chemicals extract starch from corn and convert it to glucose, then convert some glucose to fructose. According to the FDA, high-fructose corn syrup is typically 42 or 55 percent fructose, with the rest being glucose and water. Honey and beet or cane sugar (sucrose) have about a 50-50 ratio. HFCS 16 calories per teaspoon, same as regular sugar, but costs 20 to 30 percent less.
What it’s used for: Because HFCS absorbs moisture better than sucrose, food companies often use it to add a soft texture to cookies and snack bars. It also helps to brown pastries, glaze meat, sweeten fruit products and sauces, facilitate fermentation in yogurt, and preserve beverages. But Mulry says debates over whether or not NFCS qualifies as natural are largely a waste of time at this point, as it is almost entirely gone from the natural products industry.
The concerns: In 2004, a seminal paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that increased consumption of HFCS was at the root of the U.S. obesity epidemic, noting that intake had spiked 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990 and that Americans ate up to 316 calories of the stuff per day. It noted that the “digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose” in a way that might promote hunger and more weight gain. Other studies have suggested that the manufacturing process may leave trace levels of mercury in HFCS. Addtionally, it is almost always derived from genetically modified corn.
What the science says: Since 2004, numerous papers have debunked the idea that HFCS is uniquely to blame for obesity. The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls that claim “an urban myth” and says that HFCS and sugar are equally harmful. Some studies do suggest that HFCS can increase visceral fat (a particularly hazardous type of body fat) and interfere with hormones that control satiety. But HFCS defenders are quick to point out that despite its unfortunate name, high-fructose corn syrup actually has less fructose than many “natural” fruit-based sugars and about the same amount as sucrose. (In 2010 the FDA declined a CRA petitioned to allow it to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.”)
How industry is responding: An array of companies, including Natural Valley, have been sued for using “natural” on products containing HFCS. But the lawsuits tend to focus not on health concerns but, rather, on the manufacturing process and the presence of GMOs. Countless conventional food companies, including Pepsi, Snapple, Pizza Hut, and Kraft, have rolled out HFCS-free products. (According to the CSPI, consumption of HFCS declined 22 percent between 2002 and 2010). As far as the natural products industry is concerned, the lawsuits alone are probably a good enough reason to avoid this ingredient. “I think that very few people would agree that high-fructose corn syrup, even if it is made from a non-GMO source, is natural,” says food-industry attorney Todd Harrison. “It’s a losing battle.”