WASHINGTON — From jelly beans to frozen pizza, organic options are increasingly prevalent in today’s supermarkets. In fact, data show some type of organic label is available in more than three-fourths of all categories on retailers’ shelves.
Fresh foods, namely produce, meat and dairy, dominated the $43 billion of U.S. organic food sales in 2016, which was the first time the American organic food market broke though the $40 billion sales mark. Organic labels now represent 5.3% of total retail food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association (O.T.A.), Washington.
“Organic products of all sorts are now found in the majority of kitchens and households across our country,” said Laura Batcha, executive director and chief executive officer of the O.T.A. “But the organic sector is facing challenges to continue its growth.”
For starters, there’s a need for more organic farmers, because right now, supply is not meeting demand. While the term organic appears on more packaged foods, tight supplies of commercially available U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic raw materials and ingredients limit innovation and affect the type of front-of-package organic claim that is possible.
Products labeled “100% organic” must be made with all organic-certified ingredients. This can be challenging, especially since there are some food ingredients that are not available as organic. This includes, but is not limited to, ingredients that are inorganic in the chemical sense, meaning they are not carbon-based compounds. It also includes nonagricultural products. The most basic example is sodium bicarbonate, or simply baking soda.
In general, the more complex the recipe, the greater the challenge in sourcing organic ingredients and often the “less organic” the product. One option is to include a “made with organic ingredients” claim. Such products contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
This difficulty is evident in frozen meals. To manage costs, the less expensive ingredients are sourced organically. In the example of frozen pizza, the flour for the crust, sauce and vegetable toppings may be organic, while cheeses and meats will be conventional.
The other label option is the claim of “organic.” These products may contain a maximum of 5% non-organic certified ingredients identified on the National List of Allowed Substances, which is issued by the National Organic Program (N.O.P.) a department within the U.S.D.A. Agricultural Marketing Service. In both scenarios, the non-organic ingredients must all be recognized as N.O.P.-compliant ingredients. Such ingredients are made without synthetic solvents, are free from preservatives and are not made with prohibited methods, such as genetic engineering, among other stipulations. Cheese and meat on the pizza would need to meet these qualifications.
All of the substances on the National List are required to fulfill three critical criteria as specified by the Organic Foods Production Act. First, they must not be harmful to human health or the environment. They also must be necessary to production because of the unavailability of natural or organic alternatives. Lastly, they must be consistent with defined organic principles.
Neither water nor salt may be certified organic; however, they are allowed in organic foods and not 100% organic foods. The N.O.P. regulations state that “water or salt included as ingredients cannot be identified as organic.” Further, the regulations require the exclusion of salt and water when calculating the percentage of organic ingredients in a multi-ingredient product.
Blue Moose, Boulder, Colo., manufacturers of artisan hummus, recently received U.S.D.A. organic certification for its hummus line, which comes in original, roasted red pepper, green chili, roasted garlic, lime with black bean and lemon turmeric flavors. Sourcing some of the organic spices and seasonings was challenging. The citric acid, for example, is non-G.M.O. certified, and the hummus is made with sea salt.
“We wanted U.S.D.A. organic certification for some time,” said Tenley Satre, president. “In 2017, we made it one of our top company priorities. We did not want to rush the innovation process, as we believe our hummus has a deliciously homemade taste. It took some time to source the organic ingredients that met our required certifications, which includes being Non-G.M.O. Project verified, certified gluten-free and vegan. We are fortunate to have great supplier partners who made the sourcing process as seamless as possible.”
Part of Blue Moose’s quality story is the use of high-pressure processing rather than heat. This keeps the unopened product fresh for more than 90 days without the use of preservatives, other than the natural effects of spices and sea salt.
Sundried fruit manufacturer Traina Foods, Patterson, Calif., is introducing an organic version of its sundried tomato ketchup. There’s also a new organic Sicilian ketchup seasoned with a blend of organic spices, including fennel, garlic and other Italian herbs. A 16-oz bottle of either ketchup contains 4 lbs of organic tomatoes. The only non-organic ingredient is the salt.
After more than a year and a half of product development, Brownie Brittle L.L.C., West Palm Beach, Fla., rolled out organic versions of its flagship brownie products in 2016. Sheila G’s Brownie Brittle is a unique snack that tastes like the crispy edges of traditional brownies.
“Despite initial formulation challenges and tighter product margins, we did it,” said Sheila Mains, founder and chief executive officer.
A key formulation modification to achieve U.S.D.A. organic certification was to replace bleached flour with unbleached flour. This created a number of baking and taste changes that required the company to adjust other ingredients in the formula, Ms. Mains said.
“We had to create a formula that balanced the cocoa and the unbleached flour,” she said. “We came up with many different variations. The goal was to get it to taste as much like our original Brownie Brittle line as possible.”
The company now offers organic Brownie Brittle in three varieties — chocolate chip, pretzel with dark chocolate and chocolate with toasted coconut — with the latter two flavors new to the brand. There’s also four varieties of new Organic Thindulgent Chocolate Bark rolling out into the marketplace. The bark is thinner than a candy bar, with a bit of snap to it.
The flavors of the organic versions are influenced by organic ingredient availability and quality, and of course, price. There is no way around it, organic ingredients cost more.
Companies, especially those with conventional and organic products, recognize that they cannot pass all of that extra cost on to consumers. Brownie Brittle manages the approximate 50% cost difference by passing about 30% on to the consumer and absorbing the other 20%. This approach results in thinner margins on the organic products. Ms. Mains believes it’s worth it, because having organic options gets the product into new channels.
Making a list
Product developers should determine up front their organic label objective. They must also be fluent on the National List, as it is a dynamic document that is always changing.
The National List is found in Title 7 Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Two sections are dedicated to ingredients. The “605” contains the nonagricultural ingredients, which in addition to baking soda, includes acids, enzymes, flavors, microorganisms, waxes, and select gums, minerals and vitamins. The list identifies approved synthetic and non-synthetic options, with the former often cited by some activists as being misleading.
What these critics may not understand is that all commercial forms of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) ingredient are manufactured. With vitamin C being a water-soluble vitamin that the body requires in large quantities, fortification of foods is important to human health. Ascorbic acid is also a highly functional ingredient that acts as an antioxidant in many foods, thereby ensuring freshness and even safety. This is just one example of an allowed synthetic ingredient on the 605 list.
“While the belief of the organic sector has always been the fewer synthetic substances in the organic process the better, it is also important to realize that in some cases, until organic alternatives are found, some synthetic substances may be necessary to safely produce and process an organic product,” said Gwendolyn Wyard, vice-president of regulatory and technical affairs at the O.T.A. “It is important to make sure these essential materials stay on the National List until alternatives are developed.”
Since 2008, there’s been a shift away from allowed synthetics in organic animal care, farming and food manufacturing. Only six synthetics have been added to the comprehensive list, with a total of 72 removed, denied or further restricted.
“The National List was meant to reflect realistic organic practices,” Ms. Wyard said. “It’s a fluid list, providing a dynamic process of adding and removing substances. When organic alternatives enter the market, the process provides a transparent method to remove non-essential synthetic substances. This is the spirit of the organic industry. When an organic ingredient is available, then it should be used.”
The organic industry recognizes innovation is constant and some of the ingredients on the 605 list are starting to become available in organic form.
“This includes yeast, dairy cultures and flavors,” Ms. Wyard said. “Currently there is an annotation by yeast that when an organic version is available, it must be used.”
Commercial availability was always a consideration when developing the list. That availability recognizes quantity, quality and form and this is built into the regulations. Price is not a factor.
The “606” list is also a dynamic and evolving list. It identifies non-organically produced agricultural products allowed as ingredients in processed foods labeled as organic. A majority of the items currently on this list are colors derived from agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables; select gums, fibers and starches; and select animal-derived products.
“A good number of these ingredients are available organic, but not in the quantity, quality or form required in food manufacturing,” Ms. Wyard said. “This is why we are always revisiting the list.”
She explained that the 606 list began in 2002 with five ingredients. By 2007, it was at 43. However, since then, nine ingredients have been removed because they were readily commercially available. Familiar ingredients removed included hops, unmodified rice starch, annatto, and most recently, chipotle peppers and chia seed.
Getting on and off the list
The National Organic Standards Board (N.O.S.B.) plays a role in the organic rulemaking process, as it is the organization that evaluates the National List. The N.O.S.B., through an open public forum review and comment process, regularly advises U.S.D.A. on ingredients to be added, as well as removed, from the list. The U.S.D.A., often, but not always, implements these recommendations, as the regulatory agency takes into considerations its stakeholders, the suppliers and users of the ingredients.
Whey protein concentrate (W.P.C.) is such an example. The N.O.S.B. voted in 2015 to have it removed from the 606 list; however, the U.S.D.A. did not comply. During public comment, the U.S.D.A. was made aware that there’s a fragile supply of organic W.P.C., of which most goes to either organic infant formula or the sports nutrition market. In some instances, when a prepared foods manufacturer requires a minute amount, always less than 5% of the formula, it’s necessary to be able to source non-organic.
“Celery powder is an interesting ingredient on the 606,” Ms. Wyard said. “We would like to see it come off the list; however, supply cannot keep up with demand for this natural curing agent used in the processed meat industry. And, what most don’t know is that the celery powder used as a curing agent is not made from the common celery we eat. It’s a special variety and to date an organic supply is not readily available. We have a National List Innvoation Working Group that is working to develop an organic form so we can make available what consumers expect.”
Since November 2014, the O.T.A. has been working with the N.O.S.B. to revise the 605 list to require an annotation for flavors, which would make it mandatory that organic flavors be used when commercially available. The N.O.S.B. has passed the recommendation, and it is with the N.O.P. in an open comment period on a proposed rule.
As of now, all natural flavors are allowed in certified organic processed foods in the 5% non-organic portion, provided they are produced without synthetic solvents, synthetic carriers and artificial preservatives. They also must be made without the use of genetic engineering and irradiation. Natural flavors have been included on the National List since it was first implemented in 2002.
“Since that time, however, many organic flavors have been developed and are being successfully used by many companies,” Ms. Wyard said. “The number of organic flavors in the marketplace is now substantial, so we are asking for a revision to the current listing of natural flavors to require the use of organic flavors when they are commercially available in the necessary quality, quantity or form.”
Ms. Wyard often refers to the 605 and 606 as the entrepreneur’s lists of opportunity. She provided the hypothetical situation of an entrepreneur who reviews the lists, identifies an ingredient to produce organically and then goes out and does that, making it commercially available in quality, quantity and form. The non-organic version gets petitioned for removal from the list and if it does, the entrepreneur has a guaranteed customer base.
“A real-life example of a determined individual working within the N.O.S.B. system to replace an allowed synthetic material on the National List with a certified organic substitute occurred in 2013,” she said. “The head of the company, which makes rice-based ingredients that food manufacturers use as alternatives to synthetic ingredients, submitted a petition in 2010 to remove silicon dioxide from the National List since his company had developed a rice-based certified organic alternative to the synthetic. In 2013, the N.O.S.B. amended the use of silicon dioxide and weighed in favor of organic rice hulls when available.
“Our goal and the requirement of the regulation is always organic first and natural second,” Ms. Wyard said. “Synthetic may only be used if neither of the two options are available and it meets the strict criteria of the law.”