By Lorraine Heller
Products containing high fructose corn syrup cannot be considered ‘natural’ and should not be labeled as such, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said.
The decision is likely to cause a massive stir in the food and beverage industry, where a discreet battle has been raging over the status of the controversial sweetener.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is derived from corn, and used primarily to sweeten beverages. The trade group Corn Refiners Association and numerous industry members have long maintained that HFCS is a natural sweetener.
However, the sugar industry is more critical, as HFCS comes into direct competition with sugar as a sweetener. Industry group Sugar Association, as well as consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest categorically maintain that HFCS cannot be considered natural because its chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in the manufacturing process.
The debate raged on for one simple reason: FDA does not define the term ‘natural’, and it has therefore been left open to different interpretations.
However, in response to an inquiry from FoodNavigator-USA.com, the regulatory agency examined the composition of HFCS, which it said is produced using synthetic fixing agents.
“Consequently, we would object to the use of the term ‘natural’ on a product containing HFCS,” the agency’s Geraldine June said in an e-mail to FoodNavigator-USA.com. June is Supervisor of the Product Evaluation and Labeling team at FDA’s Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements.
FDA on ‘natural’
FDA has received two petitions to define the term ‘natural’ – one from the Sugar Association, and one from bakery firm Sara Lee.
Although the agency had not provided a formal response to these petitions, it told this publication that it has no plans to define the term in the near future, due to limited resources. “We’re not sure how high of an issue it is for consumers,” it said.
Nevertheless, FDA does have a longstanding policy regarding the use of the term. This states that a ‘natural’ product is one that has not had any artificial or synthetic substances added to the product that would not normally be expected to be in the food – including artificial flavors or color additives, regardless of source.
FDA also does not currently restrict the use of the term ‘natural’ except on products that contain added color, synthetic substances and flavors as provided for in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 101.22.
FDA on HFCS
Although FDA provides no definition or detailed guidelines for the use of the term ‘natural’, it said it has a system in place for manufacturers with doubts to approach it and ask for guidance on the use of particular ingredients.
Under this system, FoodNavigator-USA.com submitted an inquiry about HFCS.
FDA responded that HFCS is prepared from a high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate by partial enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose using an insoluble glucose isomerase enzyme preparation.
The glucose isomerase enzyme preparation is fixed (rendered insoluble) using safe and suitable immobilization/fixing agents, it said.
“The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our (…) policy regarding the use of the term ‘natural’,” said Geraldine June.
“Moreover, the corn starch hydrolysate, which is the substrate used in the production of HFCS, may be obtained through the use of safe and suitable acids or enzymes. Depending on the type of acid(s) used to obtain the corn starch hydrolysate, this substrate itself may not fit within the description of ‘natural’ and, therefore, HCFS produced from such corn starch hydrolysate would not qualify for a ‘natural’ labeling term,” she concluded.
HFCS and industry
Although FDA’s conclusion may not be welcome by some industry members, who would have liked to have promoted their HFCS-containing products as ‘natural’, it will at least prevent any future misinterpretations.
Last year for example, both Cadbury Schweppes and Kraft faced lawsuits after making ‘natural’ label claims on beverages that contained high fructose corn syrup. Both companies changed the labeling of their products before any legal action was taken.
The market for ‘natural’
The quest for natural foods and beverages has burgeoned on the back of an overall consumer move towards healthier nutrition.
According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, ‘All Natural’ was the third most frequent claim made on food products launched in the US in 2007, appearing on 2,617 products. It ranked fourth most popular claim for beverages, used on 542 items.
In Europe, 878 ‘All Natural’ food products and 509 beverage products were launched last year.
Additionally, the Natural Marketing Institute reported in 2004 that 63 percent of US consumers have a preference for natural foods and beverages. In 2006, a Harris Interactive survey found that 83 percent of people wanted a government definition of the term.
Update: June 17, 2007
WASHINGTON , DC – The Corn Refiners Association today applauded a federal ruling that rejected a claim that products containing High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) cannot be labeled natural. The decision, issued on June 13, 2008 by U.S. District Court Judge Mary Cooper, holds that FDA regulation of beverage labeling preempts additional labeling requirements under state law.