Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Natural' food -- a meaningless label

IR Photography
America’s countryside is accentuated by
millions of acres of corn, like this field in
Orange County. But much of it has been 
grown from genetically modified seeds. 
Advocates for clarity in labeling demand 
removal of the word “natural” on such
corn products.

The Healthy Shopper

By Bob Gaydos
Nothing says “natural’ more immediately than a well-tended farm nestled into the countryside. Food grows here, it announces proudly.
Food companies like to tap into that food-farm-nature connection in R their marketing, splashing the word “natural” liberally on packages. The problem is that a lot of the ingredients in the packages come from farms that are more like factories -- a far cry from what nature created. Some of the ingredients may be natural, but are not what consumers ordinarily think of as food.
A few years ago, a story about “natural” ingredients made the rounds of food sites on the Internet. The story focused on a substance that is added to such favorite treats as ice cream, candy, yogurt, iced tea and gelatin to enhance their flavor. Mostly vanilla, strawberry and raspberry-flavored treats.
The ingredient is castoreum. Yes, it’s “natural.” No, it has nothing to do with the castor bean, as one might think. Castoreum is a yellowish secretion from the castor sac of adult male and female beavers. The castor sac is located between the anus and genitals in beavers and, along with its urine, is used to scent mark the beaver’s territory. It has also been used for years to enhance perfumes.
The Food and Drug Administration lists castoreum in the “Generally Regarded As Safe” category, which is good to know. But today, more consumers are insisting that it’s also good for them to know what the ingredients listed on food labels really are. In this case, what qualifies as “natural” ingredients.
Unfortunately, the word “natural” being plastered on packaged food labels today may have a variety of meanings. (Do not confuse it with “organic;” it’s not necessarily the same.) An “all natural” food product may sound healthful, but the real benefits may be to the company’s economic health, rather than the consumer’s physical well-being.
The fact is, the FDA has no specific, enforceable standards for what “natural” means when it comes to food. The agency says it accepts the term on processed food labels so long as the product contains no synthetic additives, artificial coloring or artificial flavoring.
Castoreum, as noted, comes from nature and so, is regarded as natural flavoring. (Some companies have stopped using it in response to the story and negative reaction to it.) As for the castor bean (actually a seed), in addition to being a source for the healthful castor oil and the deadly poison ricin, it is also the source of a “natural” food additive identified as PGPR -- polyglycerol polyricinoleate.
PGPR is a yellowish liquid that acts as an emulsifier. Candy companies use it to hold chocolate together because it’s cheaper to produce than cocoa butter and adds to the shelf life of chocolate bars. Less chocolate for you, more profits for the company. The FDA says PGPR is natural and safe for human consumption. Now at least you know what it is.
Unlike PGPR, thousands of other substances that are derived from some plant source are not listed on processed food labels, but still are considered “natural” additives.  Substances derived from animal sources must be listed, according to FDA rules, but as the beaver tale illustrates, that listing may not be especially informative.
Shoppers who want to know what they are eating can pressure food companies to offer more transparent labels. Many vegetarian and vegan-oriented companies are offering clearer labeling today and some larger food companies, responding to growing truth-in-labeling campaigns on social media, are starting to follow suit.

Consumer Reports recently weighed in on “natural” labels on food products. The non-profit, independent, product-testing organization called for a ban on use of the word “natural” on labels, describing it as meaningless. The call came in connection with a the organization’s report which found that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- foods altered in laboratories -- are present in many food products. Their presence, however, is not acknowledged on the label, even though many of those products are billed as “natural.” Grist for a future article.