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What ‘natural’ means in food regulations

By Special edition: Natural and clean label , 18-Jun-2010

‘Natural’ has become a word consumers like to see on food product packages, while ‘clean label’ is an industry term to describe an E-number-free ingredients list. But exact definitions depend on who you are talking to, and what additive you are taking about.

A colourful discussion

At the beginning of July any food products sold in the EU that still contain the so-called Southampton colours that were implicated in a study on hyperactivity in children will have to carry a warning label.

This has accelerated the drive towards using ‘natural colours’. The Natural Food Colours Association (NatCol) has a list classifying colours according to whether they occur in nature and are naturally-sourced, occur in nature but can be synthetically manufactured, or do not occur in nature and are manufactured synthetically, but these are not legal definitions.

Both colours that are naturally sourced and synthetically manufactured are attributed an E-number which has to be used on product packaging in the EU – but consumers may not be aware that no all E-numbers are artificial. A way to avoid having to use an E-number coloured is to use a colouring foodstuff, that is, ingredients that used in their natural food form to lend their colour to the formulation, without any purification having taken place.

Food companies tend to couch references to colourings carefully. For instance, a manufacturer may declare their products contain ‘no artificial colourings’, but they may still have colours that do exist naturally but which tend to be synthetically produced when used on an industrial scale.

Natural taste

The new EU regulation has brought some clarity to what natural means in a flavour context.

It does away with the distinction between ‘nature identical’ and ‘synthetic’ flavourings, meaning that all non-natural flavourings will simply be called ‘flavouring substances’.

Meanwhile, natural flavourings can be labelled in one of four ways, depending on their precise make up: ‘natural flavouring’; ‘natural flavouring substances’; ‘natural (eg) strawberry flavouring’; and ‘natural (eg) strawberry flavouring with other natural flavours’.

For named natural flavours – for instance, ‘natural strawberry flavour’ - 95 per cent of the flavour must come from the named source.

However when natural flavours are used with other named flavours – for example ‘natural strawberry with other natural flavourings’; those ‘other natural flavourings’ would not be strawberry derived.

The clean label question

As for clean label, Julie Scott, regulatory manager EMEA at National Starch Innovation believes the lack of a regulatory definition has created “confusion and discrepancies”.

NSFI has recently offered its definition to the market. It says a clean label: is free from chemical additives; has a simple ingredient listing (without ingredients that sound chemical or artificial); and is minimally processed using traditional techniques that are understood by consumers and not perceived as being artificial.

According to Clean Eating magazine, ‘clean eating’ means consuming food that is in its most natural state, or as close to it as possible.

Leatherhead Food International defines clean label as: “Seeking natural alternatives to food additives as, when these are listed on labels as the named ingredients rather than by E-number, it gives the food product a ‘clean label’ declaration”.

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