When it comes to organic products, consumers ‘get it.’ That's why, despite the distressed economy, U.S. sales of organic products continued to surge during 2009.

By Lauren R. Hartman

Many product categories in the baking and snack markets haven’t fared as well as organic products. Organic farming appears to have weathered recession. For example, the number of organic farms in Minnesota has increased from less than 400 in 2000 to about 650 in 2010, according to a recent report by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The report also shows that organic acreage in Minnesota was up 88% between 2000 and 2008, with 154,136 acres of certified-organic farmland in Minnesota in 2008.

But this kind of farming still only makes up less than 1% of all farming done in the state of Minnesota. So is it possible that the economic recession, which has been hard on both organic and conventional farmers, has had an impact on the number of new farmers who choose to make the transition to organic in the future?

Overall, U.S. sales of organic products actually continued to grow during 2009, despite the distressed state of the economy, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA)’s2010 Organic Industry Survey, which was released in April. And organic product sales grew last year by 5.3% overall to reach $26.6 billion. Of that figure, $24.8 billion represented organic food. The remaining $1.8 billion were sales of organic non-foods.

“While total U.S. food sales grew by only 1.6% in 2009, organic food sales grew by 5.1%,” notes OTA’s executive director Christine Bushway. “Meanwhile, organic non-food sales grew by 9.1%, as opposed to total non-food sales which had a 1% negative sales growth rate. These findings are indicative that even in tough times, consumers understand the benefits that organic products offer and will make other cuts before they give up products they value.”

A natural outlook
One of the latest trends in organic foods is responding to the consumer appeal for natural positioning, and many companies have switched part or all of their product lines to those that can be called natural. For instance,BevGradis one of the most recent additions to Glanbia Nutritionals’ flax range. Glanbia Nutritionals has had organic flaxseed as part of its portfolio since it purchased Pizzey’s Milling in 2007. Based in Fitchburg, Wis., Glanbia Nutritionals handles its flaxseed business at its plant in Manitoba, Canada, in the heart of flaxseed-growing country.

Recently, the company launched a brand new heat treatment process calledMicroSure Plus, which is used to ensure the highest levels of food safety withBevGrad and guarantee the lowest levels (less than 10,000 colony-forming units [cfu]/gram) in the industry, according to Marilyn Stieve, business development manager.MicroSure Pluswas designed to meet the needs of a rapidly changing food safety environment. The proprietary heat treatment process is an intense method that reduces the total plate count substantially more than any other heat treatment currently available, says Stieve.

“Organic products continue to grow at three times the growth of all food products,” Stieve says. “The biggest challenge in formulating organic products today is sourcing all the ingredients at acceptable costs. An ‘organic’ label alone isn’t enough to command a premium price-point with value conscious consumers.”

Glanbia Nutritionals’BevGradis an exceptionally fine and smooth ingredient, with a small particle size that allows manufacturers to fortify with ALA (alpha linolenic acid) Omega-3 in a wide range of applications without graininess or textural issues that may have presented problems in the past, Stieve adds.

OrganicBevGradis made using organically grown flaxseed sourced from the United States and Canada. Its particle size is achieved through a special milling process and allows for many different product applications where a small particle size is necessary.BevGradis suitable for use in peanut spreads and granola bars, among other products.

Food safety is top of mind for many food manufacturers and consumers alike, so Glanbia’s process doesn’t compromise the flax product’s quality, nutritional value or shelf life. The new treatment process was developed specifically for Glanbia Nutritionals’ flaxseed range, which includesBevGrad,SelectGradandChoiceGrad.

“Food safety is one of industry’s biggest priorities,” adds Stieve. “We’ve risen to the challenge by providing customers with the most intense heat treatment currently available in the flax industry. Flaxseed lignans are strong antioxidants and flaxseed is the richest natural source of ALA Omega-3, which independent studies have shown can support cardiovascular health. Products fortified with Omega-3 and antioxidants have real consumer appeal.”

Over the past three years, Glanbia Nutritionals has made key developments and investments in the depth and quality of flax products. Its new line of flax-based ingredients, available under theOptiSol 5000 Series, paves Glanbia’s way into clean label, functional ingredients. The company also installed a state-of-the-art particle-sifting system to ensure that its flaxseed ingredients consistently meet the highest quality standards.

Stieve describes the new organic version ofOptiSol 5000as a milled, functionalized flaxseed with moisture management. The new product can be used to replace gum systems in tortillas, gluten-free sweet baked goods, sheeted doughs and pasta. “It is a clean label, natural ingredient and can be labeled as ‘milled flaxseed’ on an ingredient statement,” she says. “And, it allows for good source and excellent source on-pack claims for ALA Omega-3, conferring the added benefit of enhancing nutritional value in food products.”

Flaxseed is a naturally healthy ingredient, so it appeals strongly to organic consumers, Stieve says. “An organic product with added-value nutritional benefits can strengthen a health positioning. Modern attention to a healthier lifestyle has led to a surge in the popularity of Omega-3-enriched foods. Various studies point to the importance of Omega-3s in supporting a number of conditions, including cardiovascular health, fetal development and psychological well being, creating a solid foundation for consumer appeal and market success.

“We have received positive reception for both our organicBevGradand our organicOptiSol 5000. Both of these products are unique flaxseed-based ingredients,” she continues. “The organic format opens up new product development and reformulation opportunities for our customers.”    

On the laboratory side
The International Food Network (IFN), Ithaca, N.Y., is a product development organization founded in 1987 to offer innovative new product development services to branded food, beverage and nutrition consumer packaged goods manufacturers. Known for bringing solutions into accelerated timeframes, the IFN has technical centers in Naples, Fla., and Reading, U.K. Its staff of 50 senior food scientists, as well as food engineers and a culinary team helps develop assorted new products, including many organic formulations, from concept through commercialization.

Once its project is completed, the IFN turns the process back over to its processor and manufacturer clients for production and packaging. Due to the nature of its relationship with its clients, IFN’s products are confidential, and not all of the products it develops ever make it into the marketplace, but it has much involvement on the organic front, in terms of its experiences with companies for whom it develops new products.

The IFN completed a project for organic tamales that was in development for eight months prior to the launch. The product is made with high-quality ingredients, which deliver a superior taste profile and dining experience relative to other ready-to-eat tamale products, notes Scott Martling, group leader at IFN. “Our client really wanted an authentic product, so we created one following traditional recipes where possible, including a product made in a corn husk.”

Despite the top quality, Martling says the IFN established the cost of materials early in the project to meet the customer’s desired margins. “We then worked within these constraints,” he says.

Purer products are produced
The IFN’s client base spans the food industry, Martling says, and its experience with organic formulations extends well beyond one product category. The differences between the products IFN helps develop and non-organic products include the fact that the organic products, such as flour, for example, are made from grains that use no synthetic pesticides and/or fertilizers in the fields, Martling says.

“This theoretically produces a purer product with fewer contaminants,” he explains. “In addition to these guidelines for the flours, organic products can only use organic flavors, seasonings, emulsifiers, preservatives and dough conditioners in the formula. The production facility [at which the products are made] must be certified as an organic producer. This is similar to the kosher certification process, where just using kosher ingredients is not enough.”

What trends does Martling say the IFN sees in organic product development?

“In our experience, organic products are becoming what natural was several years ago,” he points out. “Consumers view these products as healthier alternatives to conventionally produced packaged foods and are often willing to ‘trade up’ for the perceived benefits.”

He adds that this trend isn’t category- or occasion-specific. “Consumers are looking for products to enable them to eat organically throughout the day. “Baked goods and snacks are the eating occasions that get consumers from meal to meal. This means that if a consumer wants to go 100% organic, they won’t choose a conventional snack.”

Fortunately, food ingredient manufacturers are responding to the packaged foods manufacturers by creating more and more organic ingredients, which is making formulating organic products more feasible from a technical and cost perspective.

Thus, Martling agrees with the assessment that organic products and ingredients are on a growth curve. “From our point of view, the organic segment is definitely on the rise. Of the hundreds of inquiries we get a year to formulate products, at least 30% of them involve an organic product. This is a big change from only a couple years ago.”

Clients are targeting health-conscious consumers looking for recognizable ingredients in their foods. “These consumers also feel more safety in a product that is organic because it is certified,” Martling says. “These consumers can also tend to overlap with those who are looking to help reduce their environmental impact on the planet.”

Formulating products that are gluten-free also is becoming less of a challenge because of the emergence of more gluten-free ingredients. “We have had several customers request gluten-free products,” he adds. “For these products, at minimum we ensure that the ingredients are certified gluten-free and that the manufacturing facilities have an allergen-control policy in place.”

Getting back to basics
Despite all of the improvements in organic product formulation development, there are still certain gaps that remain where an organic equivalent doesn’t exist. “The packaged food industry is very specialized, with ingredient suppliers continually optimizing their portfolio to meet their customers’ needs,” Martling observes. “Organic ingredients have a late start, and are often limited on how far they can be ‘stretched.’”

Nonetheless, consumers are excited about organics, as the concept seems to resonate with a ‘back to basics’ mentality. “In some ways, certain consumer segments are rejecting conventional packaged foods and are in search of something better,” Martling says. “To consumers we have spoken to, organics seems to be a stretch in the right direction.”

Hale the kale in organic chips
As far as finished products go, one company is touting what it says is the first chocolate kale snack chip on the market. Released by Blue Mountain Organics, Floyd, Va.,Earth Chipsare available in Nutty Cheeze, Cheezy Spice and Chocolate varieties, and are described by the company as low-temperature-dehydrated and are not baked or fried.  

The popularity of kale chips has increased over the years, and so has the variety of flavors. Blue Mountain says it’s the first withEarth Chipsto combine the decadence of chocolate and the crunchy goodness of kale. The chips are made from organic raw cacao and raw coconut sugar that blend to make these unusual snack chips.  

“Kale and chocolate have such different flavor profiles that people don’t normally think of them as being a good match. But let’s face it, chocolate makes anything taste better,” says Joanne Woodward, sales manager at Blue Mountain.  

Blue Mountain says the chocolate kale chips are rich in Omega-3s and 6 fatty acids and are loaded with manganese, calcium, iron and Vitamins A, C and K, making these crunchy treats a nutritional, guilt-free snack.

This isn’t the first time that a Blue Mountain Organics brand has led the pack in product innovation. The company has developed 11 brands that are available in health foods stores and online at www.bluemountainorganics.com.

Oils, corn and more
SK Food International, Fargo, N.D., supplies a large line of premium-quality ingredients, including certified organic and conventional grains, soybeans, seeds, dry edible beans, rice products and more. Its new identity-preserved, certified-organic and conventional non-GMO (genetically modified organism) pre-cooked quinoa and amaranth flakes are custom-milled from heirloom grains, making the flakes gluten-free and kosher. Amaranth and quinoa are both commonly known as “supergrains,” as each touts high levels of protein, as well as many other health benefits.

“We are pleased to offer these new ingredients. Our pre-cooked flakes are very healthy, whole grain products that easily incorporate into many food applications,” notes Jennifer Tesch, sales and marketing director.

Applications for the organic quinoa and amaranth include cereals, tortillas, snack foods, baby food, flatbreads, baking mixes and energy bars, and come in 50-lb. bags and bulk totes.

The company has also added expeller non-GMO high-oleic canola and canola oil to its extensive line of oils. Low in saturated fats, this new canola oil is produced from select North American identity-preserved, non-GMO canola seed and has zero trans-fat. It also contains a healthy blend of Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids.

SK Food International uses mechanical expeller pressing to separate the oil from the seed or grain. The oil is then naturally refined, bleached and deodorized instead extracted using chemical solvents, such as hexane. “We are also pleased to note that this product is currently enrolled in the non-GMO project,” adds LeAnn Hovdenes, business development, SK Food International, Fargo, N.D. Hovdenes explains that due to its high stability, which allows for longer fry times, shelf life and resistance to off flavors, the canola oil works well as an ingredient in applications such as cooking oil, snack foods and fried foods. It’s available in 420-lb. drums, intermediate bulk containers and 2,000-lb. disposable corrugated totes, as well as bulk tanker trucks and railcars.

Likewise, its identity-preserved, certified-organic and conventional non-GMO crimson red corn is a hybrid with two unique qualities: One is the colored alerone. Where other varieties’ color is in the seed coat, which can cause corn to lose its color during food processing, the company’s crimson red has a clear seed coat, with the color in the alerone. This allows the red color to remain intact through processing.

The other quality is the gametophyte gene, which prevents cross contamination of other types of corn. “This is very beneficial, as with this gene, we are able to prevent GMO contamination,” states Aaron Skyberg, business development for SK Food International. “The gametophyte gene within the corn does not allow other types, or species, of corn to pollinate it. We are also working on the development of blue and white corn varieties with these same unique qualities.”

Product applications of the red corn include snack foods, tortilla chips, soft tortillas, flours and meals.

Hovdenes says that a new identity-preserved, non-GMO corn oil has unique features in that it’s 100%-expeller-pressed and is of U.S. origin. Customers are becoming increasingly aware of product origin, and want more information about content and production methods. They also want assurance that the identity of a product and its characteristics have been preserved with full traceability.”

Speaking of corn…
Minsa Corp., Red Oak, Iowa, reports that a record demand for corn has required farmers from the five continents to make their best effort to place corn as the world´s leading crop. Organic yellow corn is processed into stone-ground masa flour and has a medium-fine grind with a trace of lime and no additives. The corn’s shelf life is four months, and the flour is designed for the in-line production of yellow tortilla chips. It has a neutral pH and its medium grind controls blistering.

Minsa’s latest organic products include red organic-certified masa flour for snack applications and non-GMO purple corn, from a well-controlled variety. Also, its purple masa flour for snacks (both are different granulations to accommodate snack producers) and a new line of solutions calledMicro-Select.

CEO/operations director Rodrigo Ariceaga describesMicro-Selectas a special masa flour designed for extruded snacks. “It has the advantages and benefits of our white and yellow products and compared to worldwide competitors, has the yield and performance of a main ingredient for specialty snacks. It also maintains the integrity of corn’s composition and fiber content with a great and appealing flavor.” Micro-Select can be used in all types of snack food applications.

Ariceaga says that Minsa also is launching organic premixes for different items in the baking industry, such as premixes for pizza (premix organic-certified on white organic corn), including yellow, blue and red premixes that are all-certified varieties; a tamale mix, where only water needs to be added; a mix for churros and donuts, a pound cake mix and a cookie mix, as well as many other products for specific applications.

The difference in the way Minsa’s organic products are produced versus non-organic versions is a complete protocol of isolation, according to Ariceaga, as well as strict quality assurance control and process and handling procedures to maintain the integrity of the product. The organic products are produced in an area separated from the main production space for conventional products and are assigned a specific warehouse for its control.

The company’s portfolio of products for snacks and tortillas are reaching 10 years of worldwide recognition and support in the industry. “We can claim to be pioneers of organic snacks,” Ariceaga points out. “On the bakery applications side, we just launched new items at the IBIE 2010 show.”

Like the others, Ariceaga also sees continuous growth of organic products, as well as all-natural and healthy-oriented snacks and processed foods. “There’s definitely a trend toward more acceptance of corn-based products for the daily American diet and organic products,” he says.  

*Photo courtesy of SK Food International