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Legally Sweet

Conflict over the essences of sweeteners and olive oils brings chemistry into the courtroom

Roald Hoffmann

The Courts Know Their Chemistry!

The Code of Federal Regulations says clearly that to label a material as made in country X, a "substantial transformation" of natural or synthetic starting materials (which could come from countries Y or Z) must have occurred. The law defines a "substantial transformation" as one that changes the "name, character, or use" of a product. Case law then established that change in "character" meant chemistry and not physics! Filtering and distillation is not enough; a substantial transformation is one in which chemical bonds are made or broken.

The actual cases that I learned of were as diverse as the world could make them. For instance, in Koru North America v. United States, fish were caught near New Zealand and "beheaded, detailed, eviscerated, and frozen" at sea. They were then unloaded in New Zealand and shipped to Korea for "thawing, trimming, glazing, refreezing, and packaging." The court ruled that Korea was the country of origin, because the creation of a filet in that country was deemed to be a substantial transformation.

Various%20grades%20of%20olive%20oilClick to Enlarge ImageMoving closer to the olive-oil story, I read of one case in which Australian raw sugar was refined in Canada and another where crude foreign honey contaminated with "beeswax particles, bee fragments, wood particles, pollen, propolis, and dirt" was cleaned up in the U.S. Both were judged not to be substantial transformations.

Another case, now of a bona fide substantial transformation, was one of acetic acid from the U.S. that was shipped to Europe, chemically transformed to monochloroacetic acid, and then "imported" back to the U.S. The product was—correctly—ruled to have been made in Europe. Of course, the interest of U.S. Customs lies not just in fair labeling; import taxes and duties depend (in a less-than-logical way and subject to Congressional whims) on the country of origin.

All in all, I loved it—here was a court saying chemical change was essential change! And although I did not like the olive-oil company's advertising at all, once I looked at the complex processing of lampante, I could testify to the nature of the change. For not one but several key steps in that processing involved chemical transformation: neutralizing undesirable fatty acids (in a time-honored process called saponification; that's how soap is made), precipitating heavy metals as hydroxides, decomposing nasty peroxides, modifying sterols, isomerizing fats, transforming chlorophylls and carotenes into colorless derivatives. Yes, physical processes were also important in cleaning up lampante; nothing is simple. But while advertising will be advertising (as in the Equal v. Splenda case), the law is in reasonable accord with science: The consequence of chemical change is essential transformation.

Cosi simili, cosi diverse. And words matter.


© Roald Hoffman


Thanks to Edyta Brzostowska for some research related to this article, to Terry Acree for a comment and to Michael Shor for a legal point.


  • Birch, G. G. 1999. Modulation of sweet taste. BioFactors 9:73-80.
  • Browning, L. 2007. See you in court, Sweetie. New York Times, April 6.
  • Chandrashekar, J., M. A. Hoon, N. J. P. Ryba and S. Zuker. 2006. The receptors and cells for mammalian taste. Nature 444:288-294.
  • Levy, C. J. 2004. The olive oil seems fine. Whether it's Italian is the issue. New York Times, May 7.
  • International Olive Oil Council. 1996. World Olive Encyclopedia. Madrid.

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