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NPA weighs into ‘natural’ debate as Natural Seal initiative for food gathers pace

By Elaine Watson , 07-Nov-2011

New standards to underpin the use of the word ‘natural’ on meat & poultry products and snacks & cereals should be released by the Natural Products Association (NPA) next year as part of its Natural Seal certification scheme.

The NPA, which has developed a certification scheme for ‘natural’ home and personal care items, is now developing a similar scheme for the food industry to help firms stand out in the marketplace and give consumers confidence that foods featuring the seal adhere to clear set of standards.

Details of the scheme are still being worked out, but the plan is to roll out standards category by category, beginning with meat & poultry products and snacks & cereals, NPA vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs Cara Welch told NutraIngredients-USA.

No organic solvents, HFCS, modified starch or pHVOs

However, the focus was on products that were sourced from nature and processed naturally, she said. Thus ingredients extracted with organic solvents probably would not qualify, along with modified starch, high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Genetically engineered ingredients were still being assessed, she said. “The group looking at this wants them to be prohibited [from any definition of natural] but it’s a tricky one – it can be very hard to find GM-free soy anything in the US.”

She added: “Once these standards have been finalized they will then go to the NPA board for approval. After that we’ll look at other categories. The certification process is still being discussed. For home/personal care, we conduct a documentation audit but we’re still discussing how this might work for food."

As for the definition itself, she said: “The aim is to come up with a statement/definition of natural rather than a definitive list of all the ingredients that are considered to be natural, as new ingredients are being introduced to the market all the time.

“But we are planning to take a clear line on certain ingredients or processes we don’t consider to be natural.”

Is it in everyone’s interests to pin down ‘natural’?

While cynics would argue that the firms most likely to play fast and loose with the term ‘natural’ were the least likely to participate in any voluntary natural certification scheme, this did not mean it was a waste of time, stressed Welch.

If the likes of Kellogg, Kraft, PepsiCo and Walmart wanted to get on board, that was great, she said, but if not, it still served a clear purpose.

“The aim of the natural seal initiative is to give companies developing natural products something that shows consumers they have gone the extra mile. We’re giving them something that will help set themselves apart because they can’t afford to buy 30 seconds of advertising on the Superbowl.”

Consumers are getting pretty skeptical about ‘natural’ claims

She added: “But I certainly hope that the bigger branded firms buy into it. Consumers are getting pretty skeptical about natural now; look at all the recent lawsuits over natural and GMOs. These stories are getting a lot of traction and big firms don’t want this kind of publicity.

“We haven’t talked to the Grocery Manufacturers Association or the Food Marketing Institute on this this, but we have worked with them before on other projects and I would love to open the debate up.”

While some observers argue that trying to pin down a word as nebulous as ‘natural’ is a fool’s errand, there is clearly a value in trying to ensure that if two manufacturers both use the term on a product label, it should mean the same thing, she said.

“Clearly natural is a very subjective term, but it does not mean the same as organic, and consumers want it to be used consistently.”

If you expect FDA to pin down natural anytime soon, you’ll be ‘sorely disappointed’

While many firms would like the FDA to step up to the plate and come up with clearer guidance on ‘natural’ claims, those expecting the FDA to oblige any time soon would be “sorely disappointed” predicted Welch.

I suspect defining natural is just not on top of the FDA’s priority list right now. It has a lot on its plate and limited funding so it has to prioritize food safety.

“If companies want to wait for the FDA [to come up with a clearer definition], they will be sorely disappointed. While companies have already been holding each other to account through the NAD process or via lawsuits this is an area where self-regulation would be really helpful.”

Click here to find out more about the NPA’s Natural Seal initiative.

Click here to see the results of the NutraIngredients-USA/FoodNavigator-USA poll on natural definitions.

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