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Additives In Organic foods: A Manufacturer's Dilemma

Producing an organic product creates new challenges for manufacturers. Mary C Mulry investigates the use of controversial additives in organic food and explains how global regulation governs the choice of these ingredients.

Much of the growth in the organic industry has come from the introduction of processed food products and convenience foods, such as baby foods, beverages, frozen ready meals, biscuits, crackers and other snacks. This surge in demand has shifted the spotlight onto the role of food additives in organic production.

Food additives are typically used to improve the colouring, flavouring, texture, and aroma of foods. They also may be used to preserve, stabilize and add nutrients to various processed foods. Since organic foods historically have been defined as "carefully" or "minimally" processed with the minimal use of food additives, the addition of many of these ingredients to organic foods is somewhat controversial. Many "minor" food additives used in conventional food processing, often invisible to consumers on the label, have been problematic for producing organic processed foods. Some of these materials include carriers, processing aids, solvents, sanitizers and boiler chemicals (volatile chemicals added to steam to prolong the life of the boiler equipment).

In principle, there is a generally accepted hierarchy of materials usage in organics. This hierarchy dictates that organic agricultural ingredients are to be used whenever possible. Non-organic agricultural materials are to be used only when organic materials are "commercially unavailable" in sufficient quantities for production. Then finally, "in cases where an ingredient of organic origin is unavailable in sufficient quality or quantity, the certification body may authorise use of non organic raw materials subject to periodic review and re-evaluation," according to the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) Basic Standards.

In accordance with these requirements, each organic regulatory body has developed a list of materials approved for use in organic processed foods. There are currently five regulatory bodies and consequently, five separate lists used globally for this purpose.

Global trade is a key issue for the continued growth of the organic industry, therefore harmonization of these lists has been a key concern. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) in the United States publishes both generic and brand name materials lists for organic certification bodies in the US. They are currently in discussions with IFOAM to compare the various global lists, with the possibility of developing a strategy for eventual global harmonization of allowed materials in organic food production.

There are four labeling categories of processed organic foods (water and salt are exempted from the percentage calculations below):

  • 100% organic — no non-organic materials allowed
  • Organic foods — must be at least 95% organic ingredients, non-organic materials must be specifically allowed
  • Made with organic ingredients — 70% to 95% organic ingredients, non-organic ingredients are severely restricted
  • Listing of an organic ingredient descriptor on the label — few or no restrictions on the non-organic ingredients used.

When developing an organic processed food, it is important to note that only a comparatively few ingredients are specifically allowed to be used as part of the non-organic ingredients and those ingredients may be subject to additional restrictions. These restrictions may specify that the ingredients must not have been genetically engineered, irradiated or treated with sewage sludge. Therefore, if citric acid is needed to acidify a beverage, the citric acid must be sourced from an identity-preserved non-GMO source. It has been a challenge for the industry to source such materials on an ongoing basis.

There are several areas of controversy in the discussion of the use of food additives in organic processed foods. These include the use of added nutrients, colouring and flavouring ingredients in processed foods, and the compatibility of functional/nutraceutical ingredients with organic foods. The use of added nutrient vitamins and minerals is not allowed by most regulatory bodies, unless specifically required by law (for enrichment of breads and cereals, for example). The certifying bodies in the United States have used more liberal policies in the past, allowing a product such as organic orange juice, for example, to add certain vitamins and minerals, creating a fortified item which competes directly with conventional orange juice in the marketplace. The Final USDA Rule, effective in October 2002, is more restrictive and could have a significant impact on the availability of these types of products in the United States.

The restrictions on the addition of synthetic colours and flavourings has spurred the development of organic sources of these materials. There are now organic essential oils, including organic citrus, peppermint and vanilla extracts available commercially. In addition, organic sources of natural colourings, such as supercritical carbon dioxide-extracted annatto are now becoming commercially available.

Finally, the issue of compatibility of "organic" and "functional" foods is fraught with difficulty, given the restrictions on additives in processed organic foods. In addition, cultural differences in the marketplace make it difficult to conceive of nutraceuticals as compatible with organics. However, many traditional whole food materials with healthful properties, such as soya, flax, and dairy products are obtainable in organic form. With these products, the additional value of "organic" may be compatible with "functional" after all.

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