A growing body of research pointing to the health benefits of including organic foods in the daily diet, combined with more easily obtained quality organic ingredients, has fueled exponential growth in the availability and consumption of organic products today. In fact, a recent survey by “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert revealed that 20% of respondents plan on consuming more organic products in 2004.

Yet, despite the increased number of organic foods, several product categories have not yet been penetrated. Take, for instance, a product like au gratin potatoes. While it may seem simple to create an organic “twin” to this product, the challenge can prove unexpectedly difficult. The reason: ingredient sourcing, cost, and taste profile issues.

However, given the wider availability of organic ingredients and advancements in flavored ingredients, like cheese, from companies like Sunrich Food Group (Hope, Minn.), organic au gratin potatoes and similar products most likely will be developed soon. But, in order for new products to qualify for the USDA organic seal, food producers need to dissect each ingredient and determine how to source an organic alternative.

For example, a quick glance at the ingredient comparison between a non-organic and organic au gratin potato product (see chart) makes it look like the process is simple: just replace non-organic ingredients with ingredients that meet the organic standards. However, it is quite complex.

By default, an organic product is higher in cost than its non-organic counterpart because of limited availability, lower crop yields, and the processing required to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (Washington) standards. Organic cornstarch, for instance, may need to be acquired from Europe rather than from a domestic supplier. Tocopherols, organic-qualifying alternatives to sodium bisulfite, are a more expensive necessity as well, again due to sourcing and processing requirements.

Another challenge when trying to create an organic product that is similar to a consumer favorite is matching the consistency, appearance and taste of the standard au gratin potatoes. Even though the trend is towards healthier eating, people will not give up taste. A 2001 Health Focus study found that 57% of participants chose food solely because of taste.

The most important part of au gratin potatoes, one could argue, is the cheese. Very few producers offer organic cheese ingredients that taste good and have an acceptable consistency. However, the ones that do have been able to develop an ingredient that is not only cost efficient and versatile, but one that actually tastes good. Because cheese-flavored products are so popular, organic cheese flavorings have been one of the most sought after ingredients. Sunrich Food Group is the top provider of organic cheese coatings and flavorings and has led the way in the development of new, organic cheese-flavored products, such as salad dressings, and boxed foods, such as macaroni and cheese.

The product cannot just taste good—it has to look good, too. Since Lakes Yellow 5 and 6 cannot be used if a product is to meet the new USDA standards, a good alternative for food companies to consider is annatto. A seed that is intensely orange, annatto creates the colorful “cheesy” appearance that au gratin potatoes typically have.

Companies like Sunrich Food Group help ensure that consumers are getting the great-tasting, yet healthy, products they are looking to add to their regular diets.

For more information:

Sunrich Food Group, Bill Fenske
952-939-3953, rockyf@sunrich.com, www.sunrich.com