Is Sugar Natural?

29 Sep 2014

One of the key challenges when considering any natural proposition is that it is difficult to actually define ‘natural’ and how it actually differs from other aspects such as ‘clean label’. The clean label proposition is generally considered to be seeking natural alternatives to food additives, and listing on labels as the named ingredients rather […]

Is Sugar Natural?

One of the key challenges when considering any natural proposition is that it is difficult to actually define ‘natural’ and how it actually differs from other aspects such as ‘clean label’.

The clean label proposition is generally considered to be seeking natural alternatives to food additives, and listing on labels as the named ingredients rather than by E-number. The reality, however, is that this does not extend far enough, since clean label extends further than E-numbers and additives and is increasingly seen to include ingredients themselves.

Alongside the evolution of ‘clean label’ has been the increase in the desire for ‘natural’ ingredients, which has been a macro trend for the last few years and continues to be important. With an ever-growing need for enhanced functionality of products, it is therefore natural to attempt to align the two trends to get the best of both worlds

Globally, there are various attempts to clarify the situation. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has indicated that the term ‘natural’ may be used provided it is truthful and not misleading (i.e. the product does not contain any artificial flavour or flavourings, colouring ingredients, chemical preservatives or any other artificial or synthetic ingredients) and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK also provides similar guidance for the use of the terms ‘fresh’, ‘pure’, ‘natural’ etc. in food labelling (Food Standards Agency, 2008).

Last week, I attended the Food Ingredients Global summit in London, and very much enjoyed the detailed content of many of the presentations.  I was also privileged to chair a number of the sessions, which is always a great opportunity to think harder about some of the key themes and trends of such events.

In my R&D and Technical Innovation sessions there were a number of presentations including those by Omya and Biocatalysts that focused on the enhancement of various materials through ‘expert processing’.   Such expert processes to enhance the functionality included enzyme treatments and surface area manipulation by spray drying amongst others. Such manipulation works on the premise that an increased surface area will enhance the overall reactivity, extend the application of the ingredients or deliver a greater degree of impact.  The same principle has been applied to salt and other applications such as sugar – the ultimate aim being to reduce the actual amount, but maintain its efficacy, Another of the topics discussed by my colleague Kathy Groves considered the role of nanotechnology, and considered the question of whether it was a friend or foe in the desire to achieve greater ingredient functionality.  It must be said, though, that whilst it may be successful in its ultimate objective, the regulatory and consumer issues it raises make it a difficult journey.

One of the key questions that arose – which then became a common theme – was raised initially in the context of nanotechnology: “Would nano-sugar or nano-salt still be considered natural?’.  There are arguments that suggest that salt and sugar may already exist in nanoform anyway, so could in some scenarios be considered as such.  However, what was found in all of the discussions was that the food and beverage industry has developed a strong internal moral compass in relation to what is, and isn’t, natural.  There is a strong desire to provide enhanced functionality to increase efficiency, reduce waste, reduce cost in use and make better products – but these ingredients are not trying to masquerade as ‘pure and natural’: they are manipulated and, as such, are clearly not meeting the self-regulated philosophy of what is and isn’t natural.   This is an important step in the maturity of the ‘natural ingredients’ and natural functional ingredient market, as it establishes an open and honest tone with consumers, which will ensure they do not feel ‘tricked’ or ‘coerced’ into accepting something they believed was ‘of nature’ by way of a regulatory technicality.

This brings us back to the discussion topic of whether nano-sugar is natural. Maybe the question should have been: “Is sugar natural?” Until this is considered and the answer is reconciled with the consumer, how can we really understand what added functionality can or can’t be considered as natural?

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