In 2012, McNeil Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, launched Nectresse Natural No Calorie Sweetener. At the time, the company was also the maker of Splenda—the yellow packets made with the artificial sweetener sucralose. Just two years later, their website announced the following message: "We are sorry to share the news that Nectresse Natural No Calorie Sweetener has been discontinued." The company stated that Nectresse did not meet business expectations due to disappointing sales. In this post, you'll learn what happened to this short-lived sweetener that was heavily advertised.
Nectresse had the following ingredients: erythritol, sugar, monk fruit extract, and molasses.
On the Label: "Made From Monk Fruit"
Nectresse was made with a high-intensity sweetener called monk fruit extract. Monk fruit, also called luo han guo fruit, is a small green fruit of the Chinese plant Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle. The plant is a perennial vine of the cucumber and melon family grown only in China. Here are some quick facts about the monk fruit:
The sweet components in the fruit, referred to as mogrosides, are 230 to 425 times sweeter than table sugar. A variety of mogrosides (named I, II, III, IV, V, and VI) are present in amounts that vary from 0.5 to 1 percent in the dried fruit.
Monk fruit extract has a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status in the United States and is also the ingredient in Nectresses's rival brands: Monk Fruit In The Raw, Lakanto, and Health Garden. Currently, almost 100 products are made with monk fruit and you can explore them here.
BioVittoria, the world's largest producer and processor of monk fruit, was the supplier of Nectresse's fruit extract. Biovittoria is based in New Zealand but manufactures the extract in the southern Chinese city of Giulin.
Erythritol: A Synthetic Sweetener Made from Corn
The predominant ingredient (99 percent) in Nectresse was erythritol. Erythritol is found naturally in some foods (fruits, mushrooms, fermented foods), but because those natural sources have minuscule amounts, erythritol is a synthetic sweetener. It is produced via fermentation or an electrochemical process from corn sugar (glucose). I detailed the production process in this post 60 Facts about Erythritol.
Erythritol is 60 to 70 percent as sweet as table sugar and, to compensate for the reduced sweetness, it is often combined with high-intensity sweeteners, such as monk fruit, stevia, and sucralose. Explore all erythritol sweeteners available in stores in 2020 here.
The fermentation process was used to produce Nectresse's erythritol. This process starts by isolating starch from corn. Starch is then converted to glucose via enzymatic hydrolysis. Glucose is fermented using yeast, and the fermentation broth goes through a refining process to result in erythritol crystals.
On the Label: "100% Natural"
In 2014, a lawsuit against McNeil Nutritionals challenged Nectresses's "100% natural" claim. The plaintiff complained that Nectresse was not "100% natural" due to the the fact that erythritol is a synthetic sweetener and monk fruit extract is a highly processed and refined sweetener.
What does "Natural" Mean to Most Consumers?
Even though the general public perception and the consumer expectation is that a natural sweetener is unrefined, minimally–processed, and definitely not synthetic, this isn't the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s view.
What does "Natural" Mean to the FDA?
The FDA does not object to the use of the term "natural" on food labels, as long as the sweetener is extracted from a plant source, is free of artificial flavors, added colors, and synthetic substances. In FDA's view, processing or refining does not affect the natural character of a sweetener, and natural sweeteners might even be manufactured artificially by fermentation or enzymes.
The FDA has not established a definition for the use of the term "natural'" on food labels but does have a longstanding informal policy. The policy is not clear and can have different meanings in different contexts. It is supposed to be generally applied across all food ingredients. However, different ingredients require different approaches as we can see in thousands of comments that the FDA received when asked for public feedback.
FDA’s policy for "natural" claims is based primarily upon the source material, which must be found in nature. According to the FDA, all sweeteners "derived from a natural source" are natural, no matter how highly refined and processed they might be. The sweetener must have "nothing artificial or synthetic included in, or added to, it that would not normally be expected to be in" it. For the FDA, artificial sweeteners are those not found in nature and are synthetically produced.
In FDA's view, processing and refining do not affect the natural character of the sweetener. Processing and manufacturing methods are not addressed in the FDA’s policy. Highly processed or refined sweeteners may be labeled as natural. Table sugar and other refined sugars from cane and beet, stevia leaf extracts, and monk fruit extracts, are good examples of natural sweeteners that go through a great deal of processing and refining before they become available to the consumer.
Natural sweeteners may be manufactured artificially by fermentation or enzymes. As stated in the FDA's website, ingredients "found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts". Many natural sweeteners on store shelves are not directly isolated and extracted from a plant. These "natural sweetener-like" ingredients are synthetic copies of sweet components of plants and are often referred to as naturally-occurring sweeteners. They are artificially made by fermentation or enzymes, in a process that chemically changes a material isolated from a plant. They are synthetic copies of their natural counterparts [which are intrinsic and intact in plants].
Read more about synthetic sweeteners promoted as natural here.
Lawsuits Over the "Natural" Claim
McNeil Nutritionals was not the only sugar substitute producer that came under fire over "natural" claims on their products' label.
In 2013, Cargill, Inc. was sued for marketing its stevia-based sweetener Truvía as natural. One complaint was that stevia extract reb A is highly processed and refined. In addition, erythritol -- the main ingredient (99% of the weight of Truvía powder) -- is a synthetic sweetener. In 2014, Cargill agreed to pay $6.1m, considered the highest settlement paid for a "natural" claim lawsuit.
In 2008, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which is the trade association representing the corn refining industry, requested to consider high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) natural. Initially, in April 2008, the FDA said in a letter: HFCS is not natural. But, in July of the same year, the FDA found that HFCS can be labeled natural, and here is the letter from the FDA.
In 2006, The Sugar Association, which is the trade association representing the cane and beet sugar industry, petitioned the FDA to accept USDA's definition of "natural," claiming HFCS as natural was misleading.
In 2005, The Sugar Association filed a lawsuit against McNeil Nutritionals, the maker of the artificial sweetener Splenda, for using the slogan "made from sugar so it tastes like sugar." suggesting Splenda is natural rather than artificial. The case was settled in 2008, but the agreement was confidential.
We as consumers have different ideas about what a natural sweetener means and usually, it is not in line with the FDA's view. Sweeteners carrying the "natural" claim, such as Nectresse, might be highly refined and processed, or even synthetically produced by enzymes or fermentation.
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Share your thoughts!
What is your expectation when you see a "natural" claim on labels of sugars, syrups, and sweeteners? Healthier? Nutritionally superior? Minimally-processed? Unrefined? Not processed at all? What is your opinion on natural sweeteners being produced synthetically by fermentation?
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