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Many Food Companies Defrauding Consumers with a Meaningless "Natural' Label

Stumped over what’s “natural” food?

You’re not alone.

Jana Morgan considers herself a careful shopper who nonetheless was somewhat stumped when asked whether she considered high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil—a sweetener and a fat widely used by food manufacturers—to be “natural.”

“I am not really sure. I know ‘organic,’ ” said Morgan, who operates a UPS Store in Hulen Bend shopping center in Fort Worth with her husband. “My assumption is that a lot of processed food will not be purely natural.”

The federal Agriculture Department clearly defines “natural” when applied to labeling meat and poultry: no artificial or synthetic ingredients, including added hormones, and minimally processed.

But the Food and Drug Administration says it has no plans to do likewise for the galaxy of groceries it regulates.

With no clear definition, confusion and even controversy have been generated. Consumer groups are urging that the FDA restrict the use of the word “natural” and demand that food manufacturers stop being so free with it on labeling until the government acts. This spring, one organization threatened legal action against a popular soft drink, “100% Natural” 7UP.

- “ ‘Natural’ means nothing,” said Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and a senior scientist at Consumer Reports , which has urged government action. “You have to flip the box over and examine the ingredient list. You’ve got to do your homework. But there’s no requirement for what the ingredients have to be, to be considered ‘natural.’ ”

The resulting vacuum has allowed manufacturers and supermarket chains to divine their own, often conflicting, definitions.

Critics say products labeled “natural” or “all-natural” should contain neither high-fructose corn syrup nor hydrogenated vegetable oil, whose trans fatty acids are created in an industrial process.

Whole Foods, for example, does not sell “natural”-labeled foods if they contain hydrogenated oil.

Kroger, the nation’s biggest food retailer after Wal-Mart, sells a store-brand granola, “100% Natural Cereal,” that contains partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil. But none of its natural-category products include high-fructose corn syrup, Kroger spokesman Gary Huddleston says.

Zone Perfect All-Natural Nutrition Bars, made by a unit of Abbott Laboratories, have no hydrogenated oil but do have high-fructose corn syrup.

And the newly reformulated “100% Natural” 7UP similarly uses the ubiquitous corn-derived sweetener.

Studies have linked hydrogenated oil, which contains trans fatty acids, to heart disease. The Harvard University School of Public Health, which has warned about health risks of the highly processed oil since the early 1990s, said in an April study that removing trans fats from the industrial food supply could prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks and cardiac deaths each year.

- Although high-fructose corn syrup has detractors, scientists have yet to find a conclusive link to obesity and have not determined whether it’s any less healthy than other sweeteners, says Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist and author of What to Eat .

But although consumer groups argue that calling the corn sweetener “natural” misleads the public, manufacturers maintain it’s as natural as other approved additives.

With the organic and natural market burgeoning, billions of dollars are at stake. Strict guidelines govern the growing and processing of organic food products, but industry analysts frequently lump them with so-called natural items as a segment category.

Sales for all-natural and organic products will soar to $46.1 billion in 2010 from $28.3 billion in 2005, predicts Packaged Facts, a New York market-research firm. Although the Iowa State University Agricultural Marketing Resource Center says organic foods are outpacing natural ones in sales growth, products labeled all-natural were the most frequent “positive” new product category in North America during 2003, according to Mintel, a research firm. One study has shown that shoppers are willing to pay 30 percent more for food products labeled “natural.”

In 1993, the FDA indicated it “would consider establishing a definition” because consumers regard many uses of the term as “noninformative.” But late last month, spokesman Mike Herndon said there is no plan to do so.

The agency, he said in an e-mail, does not object to the word “natural” on food labels when it’s used in a non-misleading manner and when the food does not contain “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

- “The loophole,” said Rangan of Consumer Reports , “is that they don’t define synthetic.”

Food and beverage processors use high-fructose corn syrup because it is much cheaper than sugar. Cost is also a factor with hydrogenated oils, which can be manipulated to provide the needed consistency for a particular product while prolonging shelf life.

Developments this year focused new attention on the issue.

In February, the Sugar Association urged the FDA to define just what is “natural.”

Facing keen competition from rival sweeteners, sugar refiners want a definition that would bar the use of high-fructose corn syrup in products for which a “natural” claim is made. It asked the agency to borrow the USDA’s “minimally processed” qualification, which means that that an ingredient’s molecular structure is not fundamentally altered.

General Mills uses high-fructose corn syrup in its Nature Valley Brand “100% Natural” Crunchy Granola Bars.

But Kirstie Foster, a company spokeswoman, said that there is more than one way to produce the sweetener and that its supplier uses a “natural process.”

The Corn Refiners Association maintains that high-fructose corn syrup, however it’s made, is a natural ingredient because it contains no artificial or synthetic materials or color additives.

“The Food and Drug Administration has concluded that ‘natural’ flavors include those products derived from processes such as corn refining,” it says. “By contrast, products that are food colors or are chemically modified are not considered natural.”

But the Sugar Association argues that no matter how you do it, whether by using enzymes or chemicals, the molecular structure is irreversibly changed and consumers would grasp that it’s no longer a natural ingredient if they were told as much.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group based in Washington, not only backs the sugar industry’s appeal for a tighter FDA definition, it announced in May that it planned to sue Cadbury Schweppes, the maker of 7UP, for using what it called a misleading “natural” label. It will seek unspecified restitution, corrective advertising and attorney fees.

“Pretending that soda made with high-fructose syrup is ‘all natural’ is just plain old deception,” said Michael Jacobson, the group’s executive director. “High-fructose corn syrup isn’t 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.”

Cadbury Schweppes, which also makes Dr Pepper, isn’t buying any of it.

“We stand by our product and invite consumers to decide for themselves if they like 7UP Natural,” said spokesman Chris Barnes. “We’re very encouraged by early results. Consumer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and 7UP volume has grown double digits nationally in recent weeks.”

Barnes asserted that all of the drink’s five ingredients, including high-fructose corn syrup, “meet the FDA’s guidelines for natural flavors and product labeling, and consumers can find what they need to know on every can or bottle to make an informed choice.”

“High-fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener made from corn,” he said. “Like ordinary table sugar, HFCS is composed of fructose and glucose, and there’s nothing artificial or synthetic in it. A wide range of all-natural products, from bread, granola and jellies to beverages such as juices and teas, are produced with the same sweetener, which puts 7UP in good company.”

As for the CSPI, spokesman Jeff Cronin said it had just been contacted by a 7UP lawyer and so will hold off on filing the suit to give the soda maker “an opportunity to address our concerns.” Whatever the outcome with the uncola, Cronin said the group is planning legal action against another manufacturer over corn syrup in a product labeled “all-natural.”

Barry Shlachter, (817) 390-7718 barry@star-telegram.com

 
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