Topic of the Month

What does «natural» mean in terms of food nutrients?

June 1, 2015

Market research tells us that customers are now searching for food that contains natural ingredients. Manufacturers have responded with ranges of natural ingredients and nutrients. However, clarification of the meaning of “natural” in respect of this usage would be useful for all interested parties.

With the exception of flavorings, the term “natural” is not defined by the European Union when applied to food ingredients. In the USA, the Food and Drug administration also has no formal definition. In practice, the FDA appears to permit the use of the word “natural” as long as it is not misleading.

The Oxford English dictionary (1998) defines “natural” as “existing in or caused by nature, not made or caused by humankind”. It further defines “natural food” as “a food which has undergone a minimum of processing or preservative treatment”.

There is wider acceptance concerning what natural ingredients should not be. Natural ingredients should not be produced synthetically or contain synthetic ingredients. They should not be subject to irradiation or contain genetically modified organism (GMOs).

It is reasonable to expect that processing used to separate, extract or refine the ingredients should be as gentle and simple as possible. As an example, oat beta glucan, is a soluble fiber that can be extracted directly from oats using conventional milling techniques, albeit in a hi-tech way.

A “natural” Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) can be produced using a simple fermentation process followed by filtration, centrifugation and crystallization steps. Similar techniques can be used for most other water soluble vitamins.

The production of fat-soluble ingredients such as carotenoids or fat-soluble vitamins will necessitate the use of solvents during their production. It is thus most important that manufacturers demonstrate that any solvent used is completely absent in the final food ingredient. “Natural” carotenoids and marine omega fatty acids can be made from the fermentation of micro-algae.

The minimalist processing approach to “natural” food ingredients has the downside of meaning they cannot approach the purity of their synthetic equivalents. On the plus side, some naturally occurring ingredients demonstrate better bioavailability than their synthetic cousins. “Natural” alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E) is a good example of this. In nature, the molecule is in the RRR conformation, which is also the most bioactive.

Synthetic production produces a mixture of conformations which are correspondingly significantly less bioactive.The plant world provides a wonderful source of bioactive nutraceuticals that can be extracted in their original natural chemical form by simple extraction techniques. For example, concentrated water soluble extracts of tomato have been shown to benefit blood flow by suppressing platelet shape modification, whilst water soluble olive extracts reduce LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Lutein can be simply extracted from marigolds and then used in supplements for eye care.

Whilst there remains a divergence of views as to exactly what the term “natural” means with regard to the production of food ingredients, a pragmatic, common-sense approach that takes into account the final consumers expectations is one taken by most responsible manufacturers.

References

  1. Scott-Thomas C, Foodnavigator.com, 18th June 2013, What do ‘natural’ and ‘clean label’ mean anyway?