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Food Product Design: Applications - March 2005 - You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Designing Organics for KidsFood Product Design: Applications - March 2005 - You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Designing Organics for Kids

March 1, 2005

16 Min Read
Food Product Design: Applications - March 2005 - You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Designing Organics for Kids

March 2005
Cover Story


You've Come a Long Way, Baby
Designing Organics for Kids

By Kimberly J. Decker
Contributing Editor
Every few years, the cliché of the typical organic consumer gets a facelift. What was once a wilted flower child piling warty apples into a macramé tote became the crusty, backwoods iconoclast -- only to be rejuvenated into today's middle-aged "blue-stater" with a graduate degree and plenty of money. Now, another archetype joins its predecessors: Junior. Mom and Dad can now placate children (and preserve their own peace of mind) with organic adaptations of kids' favorite treats, including macaroni-and-cheese, squeezable yogurt and even creme-filled sandwich cookies. Organic baby food often serves as a parent's first step in introducing organic products to their children. If not for that little green USDA seal, Mom and Dad might not believe they were buying organic. The organic baby boom
U.S. organic-food sales have grown at a steady 20% to 24% clip since 1990 while general food receipts rose only 2% to 4%. Organic products are easy to find and 39% of the country claims to use them, according to a 2002 survey performed by the Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, PA, and SPINS, San Francisco. With most organic consumers ranging in age from 25 to 55, it's likely that many will have kids. The Hartman Group, Bellevue, WA, reports that 37% of organic households include children under 18. Becoming a parent sometimes triggers organic inclinations. "A lot of people are getting into organics and naturals through their kids," says Stephen McDonnell, president of Applegate Farms, Branchburg, NJ. "The issues around kids -- antibiotic resistance, overweight and obesity, allergies and specific diet sensitivities -- they're just exploding." The Hartman Group's 2000 "Organic Lifestyle Shopper Study" found that 66% of respondents purchase organic foods and beverages for general health and nutrition; 30% due to food-safety concerns. The U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world, organic or not. But "When you can create a hot dog that takes out a lot of the things like nitrates, and you can confirm that the product was made from animals raised without antibiotics," says McDonnell, it quiets a parent's anxious mind. Championing organics as a cure for childhood obesity is a tougher position to argue. An organic fat gram packs as many calories as conventional. Nevertheless, says Kate Leavitt, international division manager at SunRich, Minnetonka, MN, organics tie in "very much with the concept of whole foods and whole grains that you're hearing a lot about from a nutritional standpoint. Ideally, the less refined a food is, the better and more nutritionally sound it is. And that's where the organic market can meet some of these nutritional needs for kids." What kids want
Nutritional needs likely tie for last place in a kid's consideration of snack options. "When we're at the store, and my 9-year-old or my 12-year-old goes to the shelf to pick out candy or a breakfast bar," says Don Giampetro, vice president, sales, iTi tropicals, Lawrenceville, NJ, "I don't know if they're saying, 'Hey Mom, hey Dad, let's get this ... it's organic!'" To some, "organic" connotes "brown, heavy and full of gross stuff," and nothing sets a kid's eyes rolling faster. "Adults may like breads with crunchy crusts and grains," says Leavitt. "But a kid's wondering: 'Hey, where's my Wonder®?'" Most kids prefer their food sugary and straightforward in flavor. Generally, chocolate, peanut butter, vanilla -- and simple blends thereof -- suffice. Other kid-friendly blends include apricot-mango, strawberry-banana and strawberry-kiwi, all of which pare down the timeless tutti-frutti mishmash. Kids give a big thumbs-up to flavor intensity. Sixth graders battle to see who can stomach the most-extreme cinnamon red-hots, and kids want wild and wacky colors to match, in everything from cereal to ketchup. However, "If we didn't condition kids with foods that are so sweet or so fatty or so blue," says Grace Marroquin, president of Marroquin International, Santa Cruz, CA, "if we started them off by introducing the right foods from the beginning -- which we have the opportunity to do -- I think they would choose those instead." McDonnell agrees, contending that "the marketplace dramatically underestimates a kid's palate." Kids choose what they think tastes best, be it a samosa, an organic juice box or a gooey snack cake. He says that "is why our emphasis is that our products can't just be organic and not taste great. Taste will drive the kids. And I think it's possible to create great-tasting organic foods that are every bit as good, if not better, than what else is out there." Growing pains
But, Leavitt points out, "better is not the same. What is every five-year-old eating? They love mac-n-cheese." While the market offers organic options, she says, they're not glaringly orange and their flavors are more subtle. "So if a kid is raised only on conventional mac-n-cheese," going organic, she admits, "will be an adjustment." Some wonder if organic "junk food" is a perversion of its guiding principles. "It depends on who you talk to," Marroquin says. "Some people would be adamantly against it and say: 'That is not in the spirit of organics.' And I can understand that, because when organics started, all you could get were nuts, fruit, beans and seeds. It was all about whole foods." But Americans want more. The hard core of organic shoppers is a minority of 15% to 20%. The majority gives wider berth to products reflecting the larger market and a typical tween's tastes. The most-familiar, and successful, organic kids' products look like their conventional counterparts, just slightly sedated and with a whiff of youth-tailored social awareness: "rain forest" tropical-fruit toaster pastries, hip and healthful granola bars, breakfast cereals with nut and fruit bits, and even frozen pizzas, chicken dinners and chocolate-coated ice cream bars. "You want the ability to be indulgent," says Leavitt, "but there's a difference between totally empty calories and semi-indulgence. You might want to look at it as: 'Well, if I can find a balance between an organic snack chip and a conventional one, I'm still satisfying my child's snack craving, but at least it's going to have more whole grain, no trans fats and not as many chemical preservatives.'" Setting limits
McDonnell believes in maintaining balance and that manufacturers should try to make organic products more palatable, but limits exist. The most binding come from the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), which since 2002 has regulated -- and, for many, legitimized -- the organic industry. Manufacturers, adds Bill Fenske, vice president of technical services at SunRich, attempting to understand the rules should bookmark www.ams.usda.gov/nop, a clearinghouse for ingredients, processing, certification, compliance and enforcement questions. The site also explains organic-certification categories and labeling restrictions. A product achieves "100% organic" certification if all of its ingredients -- including its ingredients' ingredients -- are certified 100% organic (water and salt excluded). "Organic" products must derive 95% of their content by weight or volume from organic constituents (again, excluding water and salt). The next category -- products with at least 70%-organic content -- does not earn the USDA seal. They can declare "made with organic XXX," where "XXX" indicates up to three organic items used. For all products under the 70% cutoff, the NOP prohibits mention of organics on the principal display panel but allows specifying organic input on the ingredient statement. Developers eyeing the "organic" and "made with organic" categories cannot treat the remaining 5% and 30% of the formula as an unregulated free-for-all. "That 5% is really only for what you can't get as organic," says Marroquin. Manufacturers must use an organic ingredient when commercially available in a form, quality or quantity sufficient to do the job. If an ingredient isn't commercially available as organic, manufacturers can substitute conventional ingredients that appear on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (aka, "the National List"). For example, the National List permits citric acid only from microbially fermented carbohydrates, animal rennet and water-extracted gums, but not synthetic or hexane-extracted natural flavors. And while nothing creates a creamier creme center than hydrogenated shortening, "in organic, you can't have hydrogenates," says David C. Darwin, Ph.D., vice president, marketing, Avatar Corporation, University Park, IL. Don't even think about GMOs. Delivering the goods
Such restrictions don't make formulation easy, but the industry is driven by demand, says Marroquin. Today's organic suppliers offer more than simple agricultural commodities. "It's all about mimicking the conventional marketplace," she continues. "And in a sense, our business supplies the special ingredients that enable manufacturers to produce the products that they're accustomed to making." Take a conventional chocolate-chip cookie: "All those ingredients are available," she notes. "There's powdered sugar, starches, maltodextrins, corn-syrup solids, gum arabic, cocoa, cocoa butter..." The fear that massive demand for organic ingredients would hit the market all at once, draining supplies and shooting prices skyward, frightened manufacturers early on. "The panic in the past was that a really big maker would launch an organic product and all of a sudden, it drives up the market," says Leavitt. And while she warns that "blips" in the supply chain still pop up, the market has largely responded heroically. Marroquin adds that when customers worry that organic flavor supplies will be short, she tells them: "They're not short. They're limited. But they're not as limited as they were three years ago." Even so, manufacturers wonder if the quality, consistency and variety of organic ingredients can compete with what they get conventionally. Giampetro's experience with tropical fruits tells him that manufacturers can formulate with confidence. "When you look at the products that are available," he says, "and the requirements that may or may not be necessary for specific foods, such as a low-water-activity fruit fillings for a child's snack, we've seen that the physical characteristics of the tropical items that we source organically are not much different from the physical characteristics of the conventional item. Take the simple case of banana. When you look at organic and conventional bananas side-by-side, you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two as far as visuals, taste and the functionality and overall characteristics of the product are concerned." Even so, he acknowledges that when retooling a conventional formulation for an organic label, "you might need to do some modification, particularly from a standpoint of flavor and color and texture," noting that even conventional products vary from year to year. One more concern is how well functional organic ingredients perform. The NOP frowns upon chemical starch modifications, including cross-linking to strengthen native starches against heat, acid and shear. If an organic yogurt manufacturer can only use native starch, it might thicken so quickly during sterilization that it bursts and loses viscosity. Also, acidic fruit might impair starch function. Mercifully, the NOP approves physical modifications that render organic rice, corn and tapioca starches functional and stable. National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ, offers a line of organic, functional native starches that gets wide play in organic products for kids, including some baby products. All in good taste
Sweeteners often appear among the top three items in children's favorites. Manufacturers need an organic option that not only provides the right taste but functions according to specifications -- freezing-point depression, water-activity control or preventing crystallization, etc. According to Marroquin, it's all doable. "We have companies making jelly beans, gummy bears and other kinds of applications using organic corn syrup," she says. "Even looking at the most-sophisticated confectionery and bakery applications where they're using it as a humectant or binder, they say that it functions just like what they're using on the conventional side." Some organic consumers consider "HFCS" a four-letter word -- even organic high-fructose corn syrup. "A lot of organic consumers don't want to buy something with high-fructose corn syrup in it, just like they don't want to buy something that's got saturated fat," Leavitt says. Alternatives include sweeteners enzymatically hydrolyzed from organic barley, oats, rice, tapioca or wheat, as well as organic honey, juice concentrates, maple syrups and cane sweeteners. One benefit of organic tapioca sweeteners, says Prescott H. Bergh, sales and marketing, Ciranda Inc., Hudson, WI, is that they're GMO-free and, thanks to low protein and lipid contents, "are very neutral in their color and flavor profile compared to most of the other functional sweeteners out there." Although he concedes that they aren't as sweet as HFCS, to compensate "we make some tapioca syrups that blend in invert cane to get added sweetness." Organic tapioca's high amylose content produces syrups that aren't excessively viscous -- even at low conversion levels of DE 27 and DE 40 -- making them easier to pump and obviating the need for a preheat step. "Natural-food companies or cereal-bar makers can use the syrups as an edible, tack-free, glossy film to help control water activity moving in or out of a product," Bergh says. In a frosted-type flake with a lower sugar content, they'll keep the flake from getting soggy in milk too quickly. Flavored tapioca syrups "can deliver a honey, chocolate or other flavor on the outside of the bar or flake," he adds, noting the availability of a tapioca-syrup chocolate base for the organic dairy industry to deliver chocolate solids and flavor to milk without the dry powder and bacterial issues of cocoa hydration in the manufacturing plant. While the supply of organic raw materials for flavor extraction has improved, many ingredients and processes traditionally used in flavor extraction are forbidden, including synthetic solvents and carrier systems, as well as artificial preservatives. Steam-distillation and physical expression can tap organic mint, citrus fruits and sweet spices like clove, nutmeg and cinnamon for essential oils, and organic alcohol can extract 100%-organic vanilla. But, says Charles Iker, vice president of flavor creation, applications and regulatory affairs, Mane Inc., Milford, OH, "kids like fanciful blends and high impact, and those are things that can be a little more challenging to have certified organic." In that case, organic-compatible, or NOP-compliant, flavors are the next-best choice. Four criteria make a flavor organically compatible -- which is not the same as certified organic, stresses Margret Kingsley, regulatory compliance specialist at Mane -- natural (i.e., nonsynthetic), GMO-free, not produced with petroleum-based solvent extraction and not produced with sewage sludge. If materials meet those four criteria, she says, "they can be used in 95%- and 70%-organic products." This opens the door for simple fruit flavors, like peach and strawberry, as well as other basic flavor components used to build more-complicated profiles that don't occur in nature. "We can achieve most profiles if you're talking about NOP-compatible," Iker adds. "Where it gets more challenging is in that 100% category." Some popular profiles are available at 100%: "Root beer can be derived from botanicals, such as wintergreen oil and anise," he says. Greasing the skids
Looking at organic fat and oil options shows how far ingredient technologies have come. Confectioners and baked-goods manufacturers rely on release agents; conventional versions contain liquid and hydrogenated vegetable oils, and other organically verboten ingredients, such as petroleum-based mineral oils, that give them a stiff texture and oxidative stability. To make these processing aids organic, manufacturers replace hydrogenates with certified-organic solid tropical oils, such as palm (palm fruit) and coconut. They're not without their drawbacks, notes Darwin: "You don't have as many melt points and solid-fat indexes, and hydrogenation gives the flexibility to tailor an agent's texture to the relevant processing rigors. So if someone has a spray system that handles one type of viscosity versus brushing it on in a certain way, those are the kinds of textures that we can deal with." For a stable, solid fat that's organically certified and reliably GMO-free, tropical oils are the way to go. "Right now, Newman's Own® and some other organic sandwich-type cookie manufacturers are using palm fruit oil in the creme fillings," says Bergh. "To make coatings and enrobings, again, various palm fruit fractions can be added to a white coating or chocolate-type coating." Palm fruit oil's naturally high levels of antioxidant tocotrienols and tocopherols enhance what, at 50% saturation, is already a very stable oil. Given that organic regulations don't allow BHA or BHT, "any stability you can get from the ingredients themselves is going to supplement your barrier film or nitrogen packing," he says. Naturally occurring antioxidants also improve organic expeller-pressed soy oils' stability and frying performance. "One of the biggest functions you're looking for in oils is shelf life," says Fenske. "With expeller soy oil, we have a considerably longer life in frying applications because of the tocopherols inherent to the soybean." Selecting from specific, high-oleic, organic sunflower varieties allows the production of stability-enhanced, high-oleic sunflower oils that, combined with more-economical organic soy, yield a stable, cost-effective specialty-frying blend. Fenske recommends organic expeller-pressed oils to adhere seasoning blends to snacks, cereal nut clusters and bars. Other options include tack blends made with organic maltodextrins, which are functionally comparable to conventional. The organic's color won't be as white, because it doesn't go through the extensive refining of a regular maltodextrin, he says, and corn maltodextrins might have more cereal flavor, but "for most applications, it doesn't make any difference." What does make a difference is how the NOP's limits have actually created new opportunities for product developers. "I think that organics challenge manufacturers to be more creative," says Marroquin. "And sometimes, probably more often than not, they end up with a better product than if they hadn't been challenged." Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].
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