Food for thought: What's natural?

Charmian Smith investigates what is in the food we routinely pull from the supermarket shelf or buy ready made to eat.  

You may have noticed there's a growing trend for some processed food packages to make claims such as "all natural'', "no preservatives'', "no added sugar'', "no nasties'', "ensuring nature's goodness'' and other encouraging protestations.

If you read the ingredients list, you may find it is relatively short and there are no, or at least fewer, E numbers or unrecognisable ingredients than there might have been in the past.

"I think it's something to do with people wanting to know it's a genuine product, where it's come from, that it's natural,'' says Dr Miranda Mirosa of the food science department at the University of Otago.

"I think consumers' definition of 'natural' is quite different from the industry definition.''

There is no legal definition of "natural'' in New Zealand food regulations. Consumers tend to associate natural ingredients with the original product rather than something that has been synthesised in a laboratory, but sometimes ingredients described as "natural'', although derived from a recognisable vegetable or other food, may have been chemically extracted or altered.

Miranda Mirosa
Miranda Mirosa

Although we consumers may have not heard of the term, the food industry calls this trend towards simpler labels "clean labelling''.

It's not new - ingredient and additive manufacturers have been advertising "clean label'' products to food manufacturers for 10 or 15 years, according to Fiona Nyhof, professional practice fellow in the food science department.

She explains that a manufacturer making a raspberry drink, for example, might have reformulated their product, replacing an artificial red colour, which had to be listed as an E number (or "food colouring'' followed by the name of the colour, e.g. carmoisine), with the "natural'' colouring compound extracted from beetroot called "beet red''. They would then be allowed to declare food colouring as "beetroot extract'' on the label and claim their product contains no artificial colours.

Nevertheless, beetroot extract, beet red or betanin, which is chemically extracted from beetroot, has its own E number, E162.

Prof Phil Bremer of the food science department says the move to "natural'' ingredients is being driven by consumers and is influenced by a number of "active bloggers who are anti-preservatives''.

Also influential, particularly in the United States, is the supermarket chain Wholefoods Market, which refuses to sell products containing ingredients it deems unacceptable, including hydrogenated fats and artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and sweeteners.

He explains consumers didn't like unrecognisable ingredients with chemical names in the ingredients lists so E number codes (of which there are more than 300) were substituted.

Consumers who wanted to know what they stood for had to look them up, finding, for example, that E218 was the preservative methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate, or that E412 was the thickening agent, emulsifier and stabiliser guar gum.

Now there's a consumer reaction against E numbers, so more consumer-friendly sounding names are used, such as "beetroot extract'' instead of E162.

Prof Bremer points out that food additives are highly regulated, and the Australia New Zealand Food Code specifies a restricted list of which additives can be added to which food and the concentration they are to be used at.

"From a scientific and regulatory point of view the additives that are allowed are safe for the vast majority of consumers, with exceptions being additives such as the preservative and antioxidant, E223 (sodium metabisulphite), which can cause allergic reactions to those sensitive to sulphites,'' he said.

Nevertheless, consumers are still concerned about food additives, which some companies aim to address with "clean labels''.

Dr Mirosa says companies are always going to communicate things to their best advantage.

"I guess clean labels is definitely a marketing strategy that companies have caught on to. Some food companies are currently doing a great job at supplying `cleaner' products. Other food companies appear to simply dress up their products rather than really delivering the naturality and authenticity that consumers are seeking through clean labels,'' she said.

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