Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organics' debated 38

As most readers know, last year Congress overturned a court ruling that would have banned 38 nonagricultural ingredients in organic foods. The ingredients in question had been on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "National List" of approved ingredients since the Organic Rule was implemented in 2002. While the debate continues over whether the Thorny 38 should be permitted, it's helpful to at least know what they are. Here, then, is a list of the ingredients, along with a brief description of their common uses. In some instances, the description is taken directly from the National List. While many of the ingredients have high-tech, chemical-sounding names, all of them are derived from natural sources, frequently occurring in the soil or atmosphere.




Extracted from seaweed or kelp; used to form gels.

Ammonium bicarbonate

Used in baking powder and fertilizer. Permitted for use only as a leavening agent.

Ammonium carbonate

Used as a smelling salt and in baking powder. Permitted for use only as a leavening agent.

Ascorbic acid

Also known as vitamin C; often used as a natural preservative.

Calcium citrate

A form of calcium with high bioavailability. Controls acidity in foods.

Calcium hydroxide

AKA hydrated lime; reacts strongly with acids and has many uses, including as an ingredient in plaster, a lye substitute in hair relaxers and a water processor in alcoholic and soft drinks.

Calcium phosphates (monobasic, dibasic and tribasic)

Used?among other things?as a dough conditioner, leavening agent and yeast food.

Carbon dioxide

Gives fizz to carbonated beverages.


Used in regenerative casings, as an anti-caking agent (non-chlorine bleached) and as a filtering aid.

Chlorine materials

Disinfects and sanitizes food contact surfaces. The USDA mandates, however, that residual chlorine levels in water may not exceed the maximum residual disinfectant limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act.


Used for post-harvest ripening of tropical fruit and de-greening of citrus.

Ferrous sulfate

Enriches iron and fortifies foods.

Glycerides (mono and di)

Permitted for use only in drum drying of food.


Produced by hydrolysis of fats and oils. Keeps food moist.

Hydrogen peroxide

AKA bleach. Used as an anti-microbial in cheese and other dairy processing, and as a sterilizing agent in aseptic packaging.

Lecithin, bleached

An emulsifier, which means it keeps certain foods, such as chocolate, from separating. A component of choline, a natural enzyme that helps the liver metabolize fats. It also supports brain and heart health.

Magnesium carbonate

Anti-caking agent. May be used only in products labeled "made with organic."

Magnesium chloride

Derived from seawater. Used to de-ice roads and as a firming agent in foods.

Magnesium stearate

Used for anti-caking, firming, binding and as an emulsifier. May be used only in products labeled "made with organic."

Nutrient vitamins and minerals

Supplement and fortify products.


A food disinfectant. The Food and Drug Administration approved its use in food in 2001.

Pectin (low-methoxy)

Used in jams and jellies to, well, gel.

Phosphoric acid

Rust remover. Approved only for cleaning of food-contact surfaces and equipment. Also provides a tangy taste in some nonorganic colas.

Potassium acid tartrate

AKA cream of tartar. Used to stabilize egg whites and sugar syrups.

Potassium tartrate

Made from tartaric acid. Gives food a sour flavor.

Potassium carbonate

Regulates acidity.

Potassium citrate

Used pharmaceutically to prevent kidney stones. Used in food to control pH.

Potassium hydroxide

AKA potash lye. Prohibited by USDA for use in lye peeling of fruits and vegetables except when used for peeling peaches during the Individually Quick Frozen production process. Used to soften olives, glaze pretzels, and in cocoa, cheese and jam processing. Banned in Australia.

Potassium iodide

Added to table salt ("iodized salt") since 1924 to overcome widespread iodine deficiency. Permitted for use only in products labeled "made with organic."

Potassium phosphate

Used as a fertilizer and as a neutralizer in foods. Permitted only in products labeled "made with organic."

Silicon dioxide

Anti-caking agent.

Sodium citrate

Emulsifier; controls pH.

Sodium hydroxide

AKA lye. Uses similar to that of potassium hydroxide.

Sodium phosphates

Prevents "off" flavors that occur due to metal ions in foods. Permitted only in dairy foods.

Sulfur dioxide

Preservative. For use only in wine labeled "made with organic grapes." Total sulfite concentration may not exceed 100 parts per million.

Tartaric acid

Used in foods as an antioxidant, to impart a sour taste or as an emulsifier.


AKA vitamin E. Derived from vegetable oil when rosemary extracts are not a suitable alternative. Used as a preservative and antioxidant.

Xanthan gum

Emulsifier and stabilizer for water-based foods.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 100

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