FDA's comment that it does not consider high fructose corn syrup to be 'natural' has generated heated debate in the US food industry, with one camp relieved for the clarification, while the other camp opposes it as invalid.
FDA expressed its position on the sweetener in an e-mail sent to FoodNavigator-USA.com (click here for original article).
The comments from the agency's Geraldine June, supervisor of the Product Evaluation and Labeling team at FDA's Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, came in response to an inquiry filed in December 2007 by this publication.
"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'. Consequently, we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS," wrote June.
However, the US corn trade body - Corn Refiners Association (CRA) - has said that June's comments "actually (reflect) only the personal view of that one (FDA) employee who was responding to a reporter's question", and do not constitute the official position of the agency.
"In fact, the official FDA position on products made with HFCS is unchanged, and those products can be described as 'natural' under current regulations. The Food & Drug Administration Regulations clearly state that a comment by an employee does not constitute an advisory opinion and does not obligate or commit the agency to the views expressed," said CRA in a statement yesterday.
Nevertheless, FDA's comments do shed light on a topic that has until now been swept under the carpet as the lack of a clear opinion has left the issue open to interpretation.
This was proving damaging to both consumers - who may have been misled by inaccurate 'natural' label claims - and to industry - which had no clear-cut guidance on whether using the term on labeling would indeed be misleading.
The results of such confusion were seen last year, when both Cadbury Schweppes and Kraft faced lawsuits after making 'natural' label claims on beverages (7Up and Capri Sun respectively) that contained high fructose corn syrup. Both companies changed the labeling of their products before any legal action was taken.
On the other end of the spectrum, the sugar industry has expressed its support for FDA's comments, and calls for these to be formalized. The nation's sugar trade body - the Sugar Association - has already petitioned FDA to define the term natural.
"While the FDA representative has provided a statement clarifying what processes would not be considered 'natural' under current policy, the Sugar Association believes FDA should provide this as official guidance and further urges FDA to provide an official definition for 'natural' in response to our existing petition," it said.
The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which was responsible for the threatened lawsuit against Cadbury Schweppes and which had also backed the lawsuit against Kraft, yesterday said "it is good to see that FDA can confirm reality."
It added that "we'd prefer the agency to issue a more comprehensive definition to assist companies to know what's right and wrong."
"HFCS has never been natural, and consumers do not consider it to be so. In terms of consumer deception, it doesn't really matter what CSPI, FDA or anyone says - people don't want HFCS and by calling a product 'natural' they are led to believe that it does not contain HFCS," said CSPI director of litigation Steve Gardener.
Kraft and Cadbury Schweppes did not respond to calls for comment in time for publication.
Although FDA provides no formal definition for 'natural', it 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.
The agency said it has a system in place for manufacturers to inquire about the use of particular ingredients.
In response to FoodNavigator-USA's inquiry - made under this system - FDA said:
"HFCS (Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 184.1866) 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 listed at 21 CFR 184.1372."
"Per 184.1372, the glucose isomerase enzyme preparation is fixed (rendered insoluble) using safe and suitable immobilization/fixing agents, including those listed in 21 CFR 173.357."
"The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our above-stated policy regarding the use of the term 'natural'. Consequently, we would object to the use of the term "natural" on a product containing HFCS."
"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."
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