Organic Ingredients Producers Harness The High-tech Wave

New technology is helping to create functional ingredients. Jennifer Britt reports on high-tech developments in the UK market.

Herb, spice, tea and coffee extracts produced using CO 2 supercritical high-pressure extraction are demonstrating how technology in the future will help deliver functional products that are organic.

The CO2 technology is increasingly being applied to organic raw materials, says Mike Brook, managing director of The Organic Herb Trading Company in Somerset. The company sells more than 300 herbal extracts.

In the organics industry, organic flavours are at a premium, and many nonorganic substances are still necessarily permitted. Brook predicts, however, that CO2 extraction will allow for more 100 per cent organic, multi-ingredient foods.

"Organic still has the slight taint of muck and magic, but this is cutting-edge technology," Brook says. "CO2 is the way forward. It applies well to the organic herbs sector, but it remains incredibly expensive and that is holding back its take-up at this point in time. But it is like any developing technology—it takes some time for it to be embraced across the board."

The extraction process involves placing the plant material in question into a large steel vessel and pumping in CO2 until, at a high pressure, the gas becomes a super fluid—a state between a gas and a liquid. High yields are one technology pay-off, but the key advantage is that it extracts both essential oils and resins. Without these resins it is difficult to get a full flavour profile.

The problem with oleoresin extraction in terms of organic purity is that it usually involves the use of harsh solvents such as hexane or acetone. The CO2 method uses no solvents, resulting in a full-flavour profile unavailable in an essential oil.

Organic still has the slight taint of muck and magic, but this is cutting-edge technology.
As well as whole extracts, fractionation can isolate specific properties to make tailored extracts. In the case of ginger, for example, the nutraceutical industry would be mainly interested in the gingerols found in the resin that give the plant its unique taste. The beverage industry, on the other hand, would be more interested in the bouquet of the essential oil.

The Organic Herb Trading Company offers an antioxidant derived from organic rosemary extracted under CO2. It has potential uses in food, medicines and toiletries, Brook says. "Fractionation allows for standardised extracts," he says. "With CO2 extraction, you can mess around with it to get exactly the same profile every time. Alcohol is a more crude extraction process."

Russell Smart and James Ashton are co-founders of Rasancó, the organic ingredients and services company, based in Hampshire. They believe the industry will see the development of new flavourings made from organic substrates. Ashton is on a UK Soil Association (SA) standards committee working group looking at the potential in this area.

The SA continually scrutinises its list of permitted nonorganic functional ingredients as new organic alternatives become readily available. Despite this, a Catch-22 situation exists. Without availability, certain organic ingredients have limited opportunity to achieve mandatory status from the SA. Without being granted this status, demand from processors is weak, and without demand, incentive for ingredients manufacturers to produce organic alternatives is dampened.

An example is organic lecithin, which hasn't gained much of a market because of its relative expense, says Smart. Organic starches are in the same boat. "There is no incentive to use them, because non-organic is still permitted," Smart says.

Could we see an organic pectin, for instance? Used as a stabiliser and thickener, it is most commonly produced from the fibre in lemon peel or the core and skin of apples, but via an industrial process, explains Smart. "You would have to look at the processing aids involved," he points out. "Like many products in the organic market, [an organic pectin] can be [created], but it needs a mind shift."

The Village Bakery in Melmerby has just launched the first British bread using Bioreal organic yeast. The bread's labelling states forthrightly that 'hidden' processing aids, such as flour improvers and enzyme-based aids like crumb softeners that do not have to be declared even on organic products, are not used. This push for transparent labelling, albeit a bit left-handed, is echoed at Doves Farm Foods based in Hungerford, where all ingredients used in a product, whether or not they have to be declared, are nevertheless fully disclosed in packaging.

The Berkshire company is also a major commodities supplier to manufacturers of flours by the tonne, cereals and grains. As well as for baking uses, there is a large demand for flour for coatings and batters and also from the organic ready-made sector.

Bulk ingredients are being put to use in an ever-increasing range of applications, often by manufacturers who are new to the organic field, so advice on tackling the technical slopes is part of Rasancó's service. The company co-operates with a number of supply partners around the world to provide a comprehensive range (250 organic foods are listed on their certification).

There are organic versions of most raw materials, but availability is still an issue. "In organics you still get blips," says Smart. "Suddenly you can't get something for love nor money, however much you are prepared to pay."

Supplying the herbal beverage market is a major plank of business for The Organic Herb Trading Company, although its customers also include many from the cosmetics and medicines industries, as well as from the wider food industry. Peppermint and chamomile are still staples, and the company sells a huge amount of black pepper. "We carry more organic raw materials than anyone else in the world," Brook claims.

All leading suppliers emphasise the rigour of their quality control. Community Foods, a UK importer/exporter of dried commodities from around the world, has its own in-house lab for routine analysis at its North London warehouse.

For commodities such as rice, the company uses a deep-freezing process as an alternative to fumigation gases that are not permitted in organic products.

Perhaps even more than rumors of pests and disease that contribute to public cynicism about the genuine organic credentials of commodities traded across continents—not totally groundless in light of recent fraud—is a risk factor that has to be taken seriously.

But companies like Community Foods, Rasancó and The Organic Herb Trading Company, as well as many others, all of whom work in close partnership with growers to initiate and codevelop new production, often with their own experts in the field, are in pole position to answer such suspicion with examples of transparent business practices that will forge a healthier image for the industry.

Researchers Confirm That Organics Have Fewer Residues

Organic produce contains a third less pesticide residue than conventional produce, according to a study in the May issue of Food Additives and Contaminants.

The research, the first to compare pesticide residue in organic and conventional produce, shows that organic fruits and vegetables contain far less pesticide residue than conventional varieties.

"This is important news because it tells us what we've suspected all along, that organic foods have less pesticides than conventional foods," said Brian Baker, PhD, lead study author and director of the Organic Materials Review Institute in Eugene, Oregon.

The researchers analysed data from tests conducted by the US Department of Agriculture from 1994 to 1999, the State of California from 1989 to 1998 and the Consumers Union in New York in 1997. The data include test results from more than 94,000 food samples from 20 or more different crops.

The USDA data showed that 23 per cent of organic produce had pesticide residue compared with 73 per cent of conventional produce. The California tests revealed residues in nearly a third of conventional foods, but in only 6.5 per cent of organic samples. (The researchers explained that the discrepancy in the California numbers may be due to less-sensitive detection methods.) The New York tests found residues in 79 per cent of conventional samples and 29 per cent of organically grown produce. The researchers also found that conventional produce is six times more likely to contain multiple pesticide residues than organic.

According to the researchers, the residues, including DDT and chlordane, are most likely the result of contaminated soil or ground water. Drift from nearby conventional crops also contributes to contamination. The researchers said this information could be beneficial to organic farmers trying to prevent contamination in locations where drift or soil contamination might lead to residues in their produce.

Since the study's release, most mainstream press has portrayed the organic label as deceiving, but industry members reiterate that organic does not mean chemical free. "Organic never claimed to be pesticide free," Baker said. "Organic farmers avoid [using the term] pesticide free because we live on a polluted planet and some contamination is unavoidable."

—Anna Soref

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