The move toward organic foods, beverages and other goods appears to continue on a steady course with no signs of abating. According to the Hartman Group’s “Organics and Natural 2014 Report,” nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the general population reports at least occasional consumption of organic foods and beverages, with 9 percent reporting daily use.
Interestingly, this trend appears to favor youth. A full 86 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 35) report at least occasional use of organics, and 12 percent report daily consumption. This falls to 63 percent and 7 percent respectively for boomers (age 50 and up).
If there ever was a time when the organic movement was considered a passing fad, especially one that favors youth, that time has long passed. With the exception of only a year here and there, the sale of organic products has experienced annual double-digit growth for a generation now.
In an annual state-of-the-industry paper published in May of this year, the Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) reported that U.S. sales of organic products reached $35.1 billion in 2013, an 11.5 percent rise over the previous year’s $31.5 billion figure. This figure also outpaced the previous five years of growth. The OTA survey projects growth rates over the next two years will meet or even exceed this progression toward an organic world. About 90 percent of the organic products market is for foods, and growth in that segment outpaced the percentage of growth of conventionally grown foods.
“The growing interest in organic foods is not just for fruits and vegetables,” says Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of OTA. “There is an even greater interest in organic ingredients for the production of processed foods. Americans eat a large percentage of their food as processed goods. They want to know that the ingredients are safe, nutritious and free from unwanted additives.
Better than ever
Bolstering the continued growth of organic products, especially beverages, are recent reports that support the contention by organic growers — and the presumption by many consumers — that organic foods are better than conventional products when it comes to health. But until recently, this presumption had little scientific backing to support it.
An article published just last month in the British Journal of Nutrition reported the results of a meta-analysis of data from 343 peer-reviewed studies comparing organically grown versus conventionally grown foods. This meta-analysis revealed a significantly greater concentration of phytochemicals in the organic foods and a greater concentration of pesticide residues and the toxic metal cadmium in conventionally grown foods.
The beneficial phytochemicals included: phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols, and anthocyanins. All are powerful, natural antioxidants, most of which are linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers. Several recent analyses had supported the long-held convention that there are no significant differences between organically grown and conventionally grown products. However, many of these studies looked at more basic nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
“The meta-analysis from the British Journal of nutrition considered not only more studies, but more recent studies, most of which were published within the last five years,” noted Jessica Shade, director of science programs for the Organic Center, a non-profit organization for scientific research on organics and organic farming, based in Washington D.C.
The increased concentration of phytochemicals seems like a logical result of organic farming practices, which utilize a combination of manure and composts to nourish the soil, along with legume crops in rotation to increase nitrogen content. In other words, more nutrition in, more nutrition out. However, the reason for the increased concentration of beneficial phytochemicals might not be as simple as that.
“There are two hypotheses to explain the increased levels of phytochemicals,” explained Shade. “The first is called the 'Oxidative Stress Hypothesis.' When a plant is stressed — such as wounding, water stress and exposure to pets — it creates protective chemicals in response. Conventionally grown plants that lead more ‘sheltered’ lives are somewhat protected from stress by pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, they have less need to spend energy for production of protective chemicals.”
Other evidence favors the “Growth Differentiation Hypothesis.” This hypothesis is based on how plants spend their limited resources. When supplied with high-nitrogen fertilizers, conventionally grown plants spend more energy on growth and less energy on so-called secondary metabolites such as antioxidants. In other words, organically grown plants could benefit from the mid-level nutrient supplementation characteristic of organic farming that forces them to spend more energy in the production of phytochemicals.
Whatever the reason, evidence for increased antioxidant activity in organically grown produce promises to help further drive organic sales and allow for increased creativity in the processed foods market. And if positive reinforcement wasn’t enough, there are additional reasons to consider this option: A recent study published in the open-access journal Biomedical Research International presented a disturbing picture of several pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that have been given the “green light” for safety at present levels.
The article, “Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells than Their Declared Active Principles,” calls into question the safety of common pesticides.
Pesticides are formulations that contain additives called adjuvants — chemicals that in some way modify the effect of the primary ingredient on the active principle (AP). The AP is generally the only chemical tested for safety, as the adjuvants are considered inert by the manufacturing companies. These adjuvants are often kept confidential. In the aforementioned study, however, adjuvants were shown to greatly increase the toxicity of the AP when tested against specific human cell lines.
The decision to “go organic” from a manufacturer’s perspective is not one to be taken lightly. The switch to organic is a commitment to a supply chain that stretches from the farmer up the chain beyond even the processor. It also might require no small amount of creativity solving manufacturing problems. A “Certified Organic” label means the final product contains no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or ingredients from genetically modified sources.
“There are some challenges creating functional organic foods and beverages, but very few that can’t be overcome with some effort,” agrees Armin Salmen, vice-president of R&D and QA for NextFoods Inc. The Boulder, Colo.-based company makes the popular non-dairy GoodBelly brand of probiotic beverages and shots. “Things can get tricky, especially when other certification requirements are involved, such as gluten-free or kosher,” he adds. “Certain ingredients simply might not be available with such multiple certifications.”
Salmen notes that there are hoops to jump through when sourcing more unusual components. “A key challenge for juice beverages is finding and maintaining a consistent supply of organic fruit products, especially for not-so-common ingredients like organic cranberry and watermelon juice concentrates,” he says. “And even more popular ingredients, like organic orange juice or coconut water can be hard to procure, when larger companies have tied up organic crops through contracts.”
Salmen also points out how the need for multiple suppliers creates another set of hurdles. “Maintaining consistent quality of the finished product can be a challenge when material from different suppliers has to be used.”
Although costs for organic ingredients have come down somewhat as supply has increased, there still are premiums that must be accounted for at the end. “The ingredient cost contribution of organic ingredients is in almost all cases still higher than that of conventional ingredients,” says Salmen. “Moreover, when it comes to flavors for example, using certified organic flavors – as opposed to organic-compliant flavors – can potentially result in a quality disadvantage, as there are more raw material restrictions with organic ingredients.”
Beginning with the formulation, each component must be considered for its impact on the final product. The more ingredients in a processed snack food or drink, the more carefully the ingredients must be considered. For example, a product may require guar gum or inulin for texture or water binding ability, not to mention soluble fiber. Although this might not be a primary ingredient, it must be certified organic so the final product can earn the certification. TIC Gums, White Marsh, Md., offers a full line of gums and gum systems that are certified organic. The company even provides organic certification documentation that can be downloaded from its website.
Organic beverages, even where the ingredients are not so obvious, require the same certification. An organic fermented beverage begins with certified organic sources of malt, for example. Such ingredients have become a specialty of Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., Chilton, Wis. Many other suppliers are extending their reach across the full length of the ingredient supply chain in order to comply with the restrictions on certified organic labeling.
“It takes three years to convert a conventional farm to an organic farm,” says Batcha. "It is slow growth. There are restrictions on the type of fertilizers, methods of pest control — and, of course, no genetically modified ingredients are allowed.”
Nature’s Path, Richmond, British Columbia, exemplifies this level of commitment. The cereal and baked goods maker’s extensive line of organic products successfully expanded to mainstream markets after years in specialty shelves and stores. The company is constantly investing in land, converting conventional farms to organic farms and helps educate farmers on the benefits of organic farming and organic products. Still, the value must ultimately be able to translate back to the farmer, otherwise there is no incentive to pursue the more difficult and less-traveled path of pure organic.
Got organic milk?
Certified Organic dairy products require that the cows are pasture-fed throughout the entire pasture season, a time that will vary based on climate. When cattle are pasture fed, the difference shows up in the milk fat as well as in the liquid milk as a whole.
Milk fat from pasture-fed animals has a ratio of fatty acids that favors more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids (a ratio that’s more characteristic of grain-fed cattle). The germ of grains tends to be rich in omega-6 fatty acids, but pasture-fed cattle receive omega-3 fatty acids from green plants, a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Whether fish get omega-3 fatty acids up the food chain from algae or cattle ingest omega-3 fatty acids from grass in the pasture, the result is similar.
Milk from pasture-fed animals also is richer in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another fatty acid recognized by most experts as beneficial to human health. Horizon Organic Dairy Inc., a division of WhiteWave Foods Inc., Broomfield, Colo., has branched out into milk supplemented with DHA (a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid) as well as snack crackers and omega-3 rich eggs.
Organic Valley Family of Farms Inc., La Farge, Wis., is an organic farm cooperative that consists of more than 1,800 farm owners, across 33 states. The Organic Valley brand offers non-homogenized “Grassmilk” from pasture-fed animals. It is described as “the old-fashioned kind, with the cream on top.” The cooperative also offers lactose-free organic milk, to which the enzyme lactase has been added in order to split the lactose (milk sugar) into its components, glucose and galactose. For persons with an intolerance or sensitivity to lactose, this means the product can now be absorbed without digestive disturbance that occurs when such populations ingest lactose.
A problem on the fruit side of organics arises from “citrus greening.” This is a condition in which a bacterial infection destroys leaves, fruit and eventually the tree. Until the tree dies, the fruit becomes bitter and patches or whole fruits fail to mature beyond a dark green stage.
Citrus greening in the last 10 years has become widespread enough to have the potential to wreak havoc across the citrus industry. Natural alternatives to for dealing with this problem include identifying naturally resistant cultivars. Uncle Matt’s, a Clermont, Fla., provider of organic citrus juices, could have an answer after working with the Organic Center.
“There is a grove of Uncle Matt’s trees that appears to be naturally resistant to citrus greening,” explains Shade. “That’s one of the things we are conducting research on — finding out if these trees truly are resistant and if they can be used to develop naturally occurring resistant varieties.”
What processors probably most want to know is, if they move toward more organic production, are there sufficient ingredients in both quantity and diversity to match the demand? This is certainly a challenge, but it’s a challenge processors have to participate in by becoming part of the organic world.
Currently, although there are occasional “hiccups,” demand and supply are pacing each other. As the organic label becomes more popular, research to help organic growers solve a variety of problems will allow more land to be converted to organic and so farming will continue, ensuring a steady supply of ingredients for makers of organic beverages and foods worldwide.