High fructose corn syrup may be labeled natural when synthetic fixing agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing, said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), fuelling further debate on the controversial sweetener.
The decision, written to the Corn Refiners Association and considered a backtrack for the FDA by organizations opposed to the ingredient, followed a meeting that was prompted by a FoodNavigator-USA.com article published in April this year.
At that time, Geraldine June, supervisor of the product evaluation and labeling team at FDA's Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, responded to an inquiry made by FoodNavigator-USA.com saying "we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS", because it is produced using synthetic fixing agents.
However, June has now said that when HFCS is made using the process presented by Archer Daniels Midland Company, it can be considered natural.
The process sees the enzymes for making HFCS being fixed to a column by the use of a synthetic fixing agent called glutaraldehyde. However, this agent does not come into contact with the high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate and so it is not "considered to be included or added to the HFCS," said June.
"However, we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS that has a synthetic substance such as a synthetic fixing agent included in or added to it," added June.
"We would also object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS if the acids used to obtain the starch hydrolysate do not fit within our policy on 'natural'."
Response to FDA viewpoint
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.
"This is very good news, and makes it clear once again that HFCS is at a parity with sugar," said Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association.
"HFCS contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA's requirements for the use of the term 'natural.' HFCS, like table sugar and honey, is natural. It is made from corn, a natural grain product."
However, the sugar industry is more critical. Industry group Sugar Association, as well as consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) maintain HFCS cannot be considered natural because its chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in the manufacturing process.
CPSI litigation director, Steve Gardner, said: "While the CSPI has gone out of its way to say HFCS is not worse than sugar, consumers have time and again shown their disdain for the sweetener. They do not want it in their products."
Labeling a product as natural when it contains HFCS is deceiving consumers, as the process is a complex one, he said - more complex than for dextrose, which is not considered natural. If the product is labeled natural, it should at least require a disclaimer saying it contains HFCS, Gardner added.
He also expressed dismay at the fact that such a viewpoint has only been expressed via letter, saying: "When I read of the comments that the FDA said to Food Navigator, I was appalled nothing official had been said, and this is still not anything approaching an official comment. It should be done formally."
In the letter, the FDA reiterated its viewpoint as expressed to this publication in April.
It said: "When we received an inquiry from FoodNavigator-USA.com asking us whether a 'natural' claim on a product containing HFCS and natural ingredients would be misleading to consumers, we reviewed our policy on the use of the term 'natural' and our regulations on HFCS.
"We stated that the use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our policy on the use of the term 'natural'. Consequently, we said that we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS."
Last month a US federal judge rejected a claim by Stacy Holk, who filed the suit on behalf of herself and other consumers, that the use of the term 'all natural' on Snapple drinks was deceptive because the products contained HFCS.
The case, which was decided on preemption grounds, was filed by judge Mary Cooper from the US District Court of New Jersey.
The discrepancy arose from the lack of a clear definition of the term 'natural' from the nation's FDA. However, Judge Cooper said it was up to FDA, not the court, to define 'natural'.
And last year, both Cadbury Schweppes and Kraft faced lawsuits after making 'natural' label claims on 7Up and Capri Sun respectively. Both companies changed the labeling of their products before any legal action was taken.
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.
To view FDA's letter, click here .
FoodNavigator is seeking comments on the HFCS natural debate. Please send your comments of no more than 100 words to jess.halliday 'at' decisionnews.com by July 17th, putting 'HFCS - natural or not?' in the subject line.