Organic food is one of the fastest growing food sectors in the United States totaling $15 billion in sales in 2005, according to Organic Trade Association (OTA; Greenfield, Mass.). During the last 10 years, increasing consumer demand for healthier choices has driven the industry’s growth, from 17 to 21 percent each year. In recent years, fresh foods have become signature departments for many natural foods retailers, with independent natural product and health food stores and natural grocery chains accounting for 47 percent of organic sales, according to www.ota.com.
Motivated by the sector’s potential profitability, major food manufacturers, such as Kraft and General Mills and retailers like Wal-Mart have responded by extending their product offerings to include organic foods. However, domestic organic food producers will be unable to meet such a strong demand alone. The OTA also reports that in the near future, the U.S. will increasingly rely on imports from Australia, Europe, Bolivia, New Zealand, South Africa and Venezuela and South Africa to meet the needs of retailers seeking to capitalize on this profitable market.
With this in mind, sorbent technology is a promising technology for organic foods to meet extended distribution chain demands of staving off odors to sustain freshness, color, taste and texture.
Out With the Old…
Product distribution chains will lengthen as demand increases, both within the U.S. and from abroad. Organic foods must be able to withstand longer transportation and shelf time without the use of traditional shelf-life extenders, including artificial preservatives, colors or flavor enhancers, which automatically eliminates the chances for organic certification.
Therefore, phenolic compounds such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and the related compound butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which are often added to foods to preserve fats and freshness during transportation have lost their function. Yet, it becomes difficult to achieve the same shelf life for organic food products, without the use of additives and artificial preservatives, especially for those with long distribution chains.
Preserving Product Integrity through Packaging
Manufacturers now turn to packaging as a resource to achieve longevity of product integrity because it has a significant effect on increasing brand sales. Controlling the atmosphere within the package through modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) can greatly extend shelf life without altering the product’s profile, so freshness, taste, color and odor are better maintained. Often, a product’s appearance, – its color in particular – is the factor most responsible for first trial purchase. According to findings from DuPont’s Science of Fresh Consumer survey, 90 percent of U.S. consumers rely on appearance to determine if a food product is spoiled or needs to be discarded.
The main reason why food products tend to spoil is shelf-life limitation caused by microbiological degradation through oxidation and mold growth within packaging. Mold, in particular, forms when oxygen and moisture become trapped within a packaged environment. Thus, sorbent technology has become particularly vital to the organic foods industry. Oxygen-absorbing technology lowers and controls oxygen levels to protect organic food products from mold growth while moisture adsorbers reduce moisture content within a package to levels that inhibit growth of bacterial pathogens.
Using sorbent technology with packages enables organic food manufacturers to keep food integrity high without the need to add anything to their products. Companies that employ sorbent technology to keep a product fresh from factory to consumption will not only encourage repeat buying behavior, but also build brand loyalty.
Package Film Alternatives
Typically, package designers select either clear or opaque gas-impermeable films, such as foil, for most food packages. Compared wit clear film packages, the use of opaque gas-impermeable films is less desirable to package designers even though the latter has anti-oxygen properties. Opaque film obscures the product’s appearance and prevents consumers from making judgments about food freshness.
Clear film packages, however, provide great visibility but are limited in functionality without the added protection of sorbents. The use of less impermeable clear films achieve product visibility but then increase the need to control oxygen in the package, which can enter during distribution, storage and while shelved. Therefore, using appropriate sorbent technology better influences the results achieved by MAP with clear film packages, and allows greater control of oxygen levels to prevent oxidation.
Oxidation destroys nutrients and vitamins. Nothing depletes nutrients more rapidly than oxidation. The fact that vitamins A, C, E and K bind with oxygen readily and lose potency in distribution is an immediate concern to health-conscious consumers. However, by using sorbents to remove oxygen from a package, the nutritional value of vitamins – along with product taste – are protected and delivered to the consumer unaffected.
Taste is another key factor considered by consumers to determine which products they will purchase regularly. Increased use of natural flavors presents unique challenges to organic food manufacturers. The oxidation of flavor oils such, as citrus and spice oleoresins, can adversely affect flavor. To maintain the desired flavor for any length of time, removing oxygen from within the package is essential. The anti-oxygen properties of sorbents can help to lock in food flavors, while still keeping certain aspects of texture – or mouth feel – during distribution. Additionally, humectant technology can sustain relative humidity levels within 5 percent of the desired equilibrium within the package to prevent food products from becoming stale, or too moist and soggy.
Oxidation of unsaturated fats also results in product spoilage. Eliminating oxygen from the package environment with sorbents prevents cleavage at the point of a double bond in fatty acid chains, which causes the offensive odor and can affect product sales. If consumers open a product package to an unpleasant odor, buyer confidence is likely to dip and diminish repeat purchases.
Although the packaged grocery and frozen departments will continue to see more offerings, innovation seems focused on the fresh departments, which have become increasingly profitable for many natural products retailers. Specifically, organic foods are fast becoming a mainstream choice for health-conscious consumers who are concerned with the amount of artificially produced hormones, emulsifiers, and other chemicals that are being added to products. But while demand for fresh organics enable steady revenue stream growth, it is not without challenge for food manufacturers to serve and market to savvy consumers. With the use of sorbents however, food product integrity can now be better sustained throughout increasingly long distribution chains, and longer shelf-life expectations.
John F. Solomon is market leader for specialty foods at Multisorb Technologies (Buffalo, N.Y.) Reach him at 972-540-1797 or JSolomon@multisorb.com.