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December 2, 2002
Could dietary supplements be made from organic ingredients? Despite multinational scepticism, small-scale manufacturer Cheryl Thallon thinks they can. What's more, she believes that ethical consumerism is the next trend and that suppliers need to sit up and take notice
Those of us who work and live within the organics movement sometimes take it for granted that the wider world has heard of the term organics and perhaps even understands what it means. In developing our own range of supplements, vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and nutritional oils, with a particular leaning toward organic, it is increasingly clear to us at Viridian Nutrition that there is still enormous confusion out there.
A senior employee at one of the world's largest manufacturers of softgels recently confessed to me that he had no idea that their premises would need to be checked and certified before manufacturing organic products. A hugely successful plant extract patent holder recently wrote to me and claimed in all sincerity that his product was organic. I asked for certification and he was genuinely confused about what I meant.
Ask European consumers, on the other hand, and you'll find a different story. The vast majority are very aware of what organic means—no pesticides or harmful chemicals, gentle on the environment and better for you. There is no doubt about it—in the case of organics, the consumer is leading the way, with suppliers lagging way behind.
I am being generous in suggesting that suppliers are simply uneducated in the details of organic certification; we all know of companies that are claiming organic to boost sales without investing in the paperwork for certification. Just as natural, pure and fresh are overused, and often used out of context, so organic could become meaningless as a term if suppliers do not respect the certification programmes to guarantee authenticity.
During a visit to the Biofach organic exhibition in Germany this year, while we were thrilled with the range and quality of the organic products on display, the dearth of dietary supplements and nutritional ingredients as a category was disappointing. We expected to find an entire hall dedicated to organic nutritional oils, tinctures, food ingredients, extracts and so on, but just a handful of ingredients companies were scattered about the giant convention centre. No wonder it has been such a challenge for my company to source the organic raw materials we require to expand our range in the way we desire.
Concerns About US Organics
The US has historically led the way in the conventional VMS category, but Europe now has the opportunity to dominate the development of this potentially multi-million-dollar organic supplements sector. The US doesn't appear to have fully grasped the organic and GMO debates in the way we have in Europe and is in danger of being left behind.
The US Dept of Agriculture's National Organic Programme was finally implemented in October, and there is some concern throughout the global industry that these standards, while a step forward for the US, are not stringent enough to meet EU requirements. This will inevitably inhibit the importation of US organic supplements and food brands into the European marketplace.
America's rush to embrace GMO farming also has cast a dark shadow over the future of its organic growing programmes because possible GMO contamination of US crops is becoming a concern for Europeans.
The US market was always at least two to three years ahead of the UK in terms of VMS and herbal new-product development, but it appears that investments made in expanding successful brands previously loyal to the natural foods stores and into the mass market have been at the expense of new products development. Recently in the US, me-too's and the 'dumbing down' of products has been the norm, with fizzy vitamin C, glucosamine, slimming and detox products on the best-seller lists. Organic innovation has been conspicuously absent.
Opportunities And Dilemmas For Suppliers
Europe is considerably ahead of the US in understanding ethical consumerism, particularly when it comes to bringing organics into the supplements and herbals categories. Pure, back-to-nature, certified-organic products with a story are creating a new generation of supplements that consumers need—with the heart and soul that ethical consumers want.
Food blends, nutritional oils and tinctures offer the most obvious opportunities to bring certified organics into the food- supplements mix, but we do believe it should be possible to create other food extracts and even certain vitamins using organic growing methods. Vitamin E would be a good candidate. Other organic vitamins may be impossible—throwing a handful of synthetic vitamins in a base of organic green foods does not an organic multivitamin make!
Unfortunately, certification is a catch-22. Certification organisations such as the UK's Soil Association (SA) are receptive to the development of new organic sectors. Indeed, the SA guidelines launched earlier this year for health and body care products are very progressive and encouraging. However, the Soil Association cannot certify or consider certifying a nutrient, extract or preparation unless it has already been produced. Understandably, suppliers are hesitant to invest in new product development unless certification is more or less assured. Closer relationships and sensible cooperation between suppliers and certifying bodies are needed to relieve the stalemate and move the process along.
Many organic growers are already enthusiastic about switching from cultivating organic grains to producing herbs such as echinacea and St John's wort and other dietary supplements ingredients, such as flax and hemp. My company and others are currently working with a number of organic growers in the UK to develop local, traditional, seasonal and certified-organic herbs and food ingredients.
Our plea to larger suppliers is to "think organic and ethical," and consider where you are sourcing your raw materials. Could you buy them from local sources near your processing plants and offer a premium local variation? Could you buy that crop from an organic farmer and have some processing rooms in your factory converted and certified organic? Organic doesn't just apply to potatoes and apples; it could provide a niche market for a number of food extracts or factors.
The Ethical Consumer
The numbers of so-called ethical consumers are increasing apace. But financial skulduggery, price fixing, child labour abuse, pollution scandals, Machiavellian political lobbying and massive pharmaceutical compensation claims are rocking confidence in some of the giant global companies.
A significant and growing minority of consumers is feeling less attracted to the big brands and wants to find local, traditional, down-to-earth companies and products to fill their shopping baskets. These conscientious shoppers are objecting with their wallets to the excesses of the unheeding corporations and are gradually beginning to hit them where it hurts—on the bottom line.
European health food retailers have long embraced the philosophies and needs of ethical consumers, constantly looking for a local, traditional or ethical angle to promote in their health and body care departments.
The outlets are there, ready to welcome organic supplements. Consumers are ready to queue up and buy them. Producers, including Viridian, are ready to formulate and market them. So, all we need is for the raw materials suppliers to wake up and catch up.
Understanding organics and the certification process is a step in the right direction, but companies must also look at their environmental and wider social responsibilities if they want to be taken seriously in the hearts of this growing band of ethical consumers. Think traditional, seasonal and organic, and provide a down-to-earth story that a consumer will find to be in harmony with his or her own sense of well-being and conscience.
Cheryl Thallon is co-founder and director of Viridian Nutrition, Northamptonshire, England. [email protected], www.viridian-nutrition.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals.
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