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SPECIAL FEATURE: What exactly is evaporated cane juice?

By Elaine WATSON , 10-Mar-2014

The FDA wants more data on what ECJ is, how it is made, and why it is different from regular sugar
The FDA wants more data on what ECJ is, how it is made, and why it is different from regular sugar

It’s been gracing food labels for years, but more recently, it’s also prompted a tsunami of civil litigation against firms from Chobani to Trader Joe’s . So what exactly is ‘evaporated cane juice’ (ECJ), and does the name accurately reflect what it actually is?

One man paying close attention to this debate is Jorge Gonzalez, the food scientist behind US patent #6,245,153 (‘Method for producing sugar cane juice’), who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as the FDA surprised the trade by re-opening comments (click here ) on a 2009 guidance document which advises firms NOT to use the term ECJ.

Plaintiffs in the recent spate of ECJ-related lawsuits  claim that “evaporated cane juice is not juice at all”, and “is nothing more than sugar, cleverly disguised”. They also point out that the FDA has repeatedly  told food manufacturers not to use the term ECJ because it is false and misleading and ECJ is not a ‘juice’.

And according to Gonzalez, who has patented a method for the industrial scale production of sugar cane juice concentrate, they have a point, given that the product described on food labels as ‘evaporated cane juice’ is not a juice, like, say, apple juice - whereas the product described in his patented production process is "an actual juice concentrate, not a syrup or a sugar".

There is a sugar cane juice concentrate (SCJC) that is produced under a US patent which is not a syrup or a sugar but an actual juice concentrate

Gonzalez said: "A derivative of sugar cane syrup is not a juice. The large companies are making a product totally different from ours, and marketing their product as evaporated cane juice. Sugar is sugar whether derived from cane, beets or other fruits, once crystallized it is sugar.”

Jorge Gonzales: 'It is imperative that the consumers know that there is an actual sugar cane juice concentrate (SCJC) that is produced under a US patent which is not a syrup or a sugar but an actual juice concentrate.'

In contrast, the sugar cane juice concentrate produced using the process described in his patent is a completely different product, and one that could legitimately be called ‘juice’, claimed Gonzalez.

“It is imperative that the consumers know that there is an actual sugar cane juice concentrate (SCJC) that is produced under a US patent which is not a syrup or a sugar but an actual juice concentrate, which conserves all the bountiful properties, vitamins, minerals and policosanols of the actual juice.”

The taste of our product is exquisite

SCJC “has never been boiled”, but has been “concentrated in a vacuum pan wherein the temperature never exceeds 80 degrees Celsius and can be reconstituted into a juice by adding water”, he said.

"To the best of my knowledge the only US patent for the industrial production of sugar cane juice is the one I hold. If Florida Crystals [leading ECJ manufacturer] holds another patent, then that is another story."

He added: “The taste of our product is exquisite and we use it alone, to sweeten or reconstitute it into a juice, as you would any other juice concentrate.”

According to the patent , which was awarded in 2001, Gonzalez's method involves extracting juice from the sugar cane sticks using a roller mill apparatus; filtering the juice through a screen; stabilizing its pH in a non-acidic solution of calcium hydroxide; flocculating the juice with a mixture of water and a natural flocculate product; evaporating the juice to form a juice concentrate and extracting the juice concentrate from the evaporator.

The method “prevents the natural fermentation of the juice, preserves its natural color, and preserves its natural taste”.

We are in conversations with companies that could take sugar cane juice concentrate to its full potential

According to the plaintiff in a recent ECJ-related lawsuit (Miller v. Living Harvest Foods Inc (Miller v Living Harvest Foods, No. 2014-2735) “evaporated cane juice is not juice at all—it is nothing more than sugar, cleverly disguised”.

Gonzalez, who teamed up with leading Colombian sugar producer Riopaila Castilla to test his production method for SCJC a few years ago, said the trials proved it was possible to produce a top quality SCJC on an industrial scale.

He added: “We packaged it as a retail product and the shelve life has been outstanding, 10 years later in PET bottles we are consuming the SCJC in the same condition as day one.”

As an industrial ingredient, meanwhile, it has been used as a base for many juice formulations, he said: “We are in conversations with companies that could take the product to its full potential both in Latin America and North America. The label for North America and the world states simply 'Sugar Cane Juice Concentrate'.”

Florida Crystals: ECJ is made directly from cane juice in a separate facility from the refinery

So what exactly is the ingredient listed as 'evaporated cane juice' on products such as Chobani yogurts?

Leading ECJ manufacturer Florida Crystals says it has always been very open about the production process for ECJ, and insists that the term 'evaporated cane juice' accurately reflects what the product is and clearly distinguishes it from regular white refined sugar (although it does have the same number of calories and counts as sugar in the Nutrition Facts panel).

Florida Crystals: Refined sugar is made from raw sugar, which goes to the refinery to be processed and become white. ECJ is not made from raw sugar

Florida Crystals spokeswoman Marianne Martinez told FoodNavigator-USA: "Refined sugar is made from raw sugar, which goes to the refinery to be processed and become white. ECJ is not made from raw sugar [which is crystalized and then melted and crystallized again in the refinery in a process called 'double crystallization'].  

"ECJ is made directly from cane juice in a separate facility from the refinery. The cane is harvested and milled the same day using a single crystallization process to preserve the original sun-sweetened flavor and product-enhancing attributes."

Michael DeLuca: In my view, ECJ should not be identified as 'sugar' on food labels

More information is provided in a statement submitted to the court in the Kane v Chobani lawsuit (in which Chobani prevailed - click here ) by Michael DeLuca, VP of specialty ingredients at Domino Sugar, which markets ECJ products from Florida Crystals.

DeLuca says: "The plaintiffs say that ECJ is, in its ordinary and commonly understood terms, sugar, and/or dried cane syrup and that the industry uses ECJ as a euphemism for sugar. This is incorrect.... ECJ is less processed than white refined sugar and sweetens products with minimal impact on color or flavor."

ECJ is not a 'euphemism for sugar'

Justin Prochnow: Because the 2009 draft guidance has been a focal point of the litigation in this area, any revisions could have a significant effect on future litigation

He adds: "During the entire time that it has been on the market... ECJ has been considered entirely distinct from what is commonly known as refined sugar. ECJ has a distinct darker appearance because it is not decolorized, as is refined sugar. ECJ has distinct taste and smell characteristics. Further, ECJ has nutrients and other inherent constituents that do not exist in refined sugar.

"For certain of their applications, industrial customers require the use of one product or the other. In addition, ECJ is priced higher than refined sugar."

I am not aware of any supplier or food manufacturer who uses the term 'dried cane syrup'

Meanwhile, he says, "I am not aware of any supplier or food manufacturer who uses the term 'dried cane syrup' [the term the FDA wants firms to use - click here ] as a name for the product commonly referred to as ECJ or any other product.

"ECJ is different from refined sugar. It is a minimally processed, single crystalization, cane-derived sweetener. Indeed, in my view, the product commonly known as ECJ should not be identified as 'sugar' in food ingredient labeling given that it isn’t white, and doesn’t smell or taste like conventional refined sugar."

FDA: We want more data about how evaporated cane juice is manufactured

The FDA however, clearly feels that it doesn’t have enough information, and has re-opened comments (the deadline is May 5) on its 2009 draft guidance document on ECJ.

Why? Because it needs “additional data and information to better understand the basic nature and characterizing properties of the ingredient, the methods of producing it, and the differences between this ingredient and other sweeteners.”

Among the specific questions it wants answered are: ‘Does the name ‘evaporated cane juice’ adequately convey the basic nature of the food and its characterizing properties?’

So what do the lawyers make of this?

Justin Prochnow, an attorney in the Denver office of law firm Greenberg Traurig, said the FDA's move was significant given that several ECJ-related lawsuits are currently moving through the courts.

“Because the 2009 draft guidance has been a focal point of the litigation in this area, any revisions could have a significant effect on future litigation.”

In the meantime, however, anyone using ECJ on food labels is a potential target, he told delegates at the Expo West show in Anaheim on Friday morning: "You face a big risk of getting sued."

Click here to read more about the recent spate of evaporated cane juice-related lawsuits.

Click here to read our interview with Pierce Gore of Pratt & Associates, the plaintiff's attorney behind many of the recent ECJ-related lawsuits.

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