[W]hat about the consumers who are drawn to “natural” claims — will they still go for stevia when it flows from a vat of G.M.O.’s? And will regulators object?
Later that afternoon, I put these questions to David Henstrom, Cargill’s global business director for health ingredients and the man now in charge of selling Truvia. “Country by country they have different ways that they describe what you can say is natural and what you can’t,” he told me. In the United States, food-and-beverage companies get to make the judgment for themselves. “There might be some products that aren’t trying to make that hard ‘all-natural’ claim,” he continued. “Some people are claiming naturally sourced. Some people are claiming nature-identical. It comes down to the product and what the product is trying to say and deliver to the customer.”
Natural zero-calorie sweeteners have so far been caught between two imperatives: What they want to say and what they can deliver. It used to be that natural sweeteners weren’t sweet enough; now they have an added problem: They aren’t fully natural.
“‘Natural’ would mean that I picked it from the ground,” said Donna LiVolsi, the director of operations at Cumberland Packing Corporation, which invented Sweet’N Low, the first artificial sweetener sachet, in 1957. … When I asked LiVolsi if she thought [Stevia in the Raw and Monk Fruit in the Raw] were “natural,” she said she couldn’t answer, because each consumer has a sense of what the word means to them.
It’s a question that has bedeviled beverage-makers, too. In the fall of 2012, a German food company surveyed 4,000 people in eight European countries, to find out how they understood the “natural” claim. Almost three-quarters said they thought that natural products were more healthful and that they’d pay a premium to get them. More than half argued that natural products have a better taste. But the respondents weren’t sure what degree or form of processing would be enough to strip a product of its natural status. Some drew a line between sea salt (natural) and table salt (artificial). Others did the same for dried pasta and powdered milk, though both are made by dehydration.
The story notes the uptick in lawsuits about “natural” claims, including against sugar substitutes:
[A] 58-year-old woman living in Hawaii filed suit against Big Stevia. In March she bought a box of Truvia at Walmart because she thought it was a natural product. Now she’s convinced it’s no such thing. Her complaint declared that “Reb-A is not the natural crude preparation of stevia,” and that its manufacture is not “similar to making tea,” as Cargill’s packaging suggests. Rather, it’s “a highly chemically processed and purified form of stevia-leaf extract.”
Hers was not the only attack on Cargill’s natural sweetener. In ongoing negotiations to settle a similar suit, Cargill has offered to remove the phrase “similar to making tea” from the packaging and/or add an asterisk to the product’s tagline, “Nature’s Calorie-Free Sweetener,” directing people to a website F.A.Q. That page would explain that Truvia contains very little stevia, by weight, and that its main ingredient — erythritol — comes from yeast that may be fed with genetically modified corn sugar. “As with almost all finished food products,” the F.A.Q. would say, “the journey from field to table involves some processing.”
The NYT describes manufacturers’ response as “pragmatic” in that they won’t make health claims or comparative naturalness claims for forms of stevia.