The crunch of a good organic apple. The taste of a sun-warmed organic tomato. The welcome chunk of an organic potato in a potato salad.  The distinctive flavor of an organic hamburger. Without a doubt, fresh organic foods are a popular mainstay in grocery stores and at farmers markets across the nation. But what about processed organic foods such as applesauce or juice, tomato sauce, frozen meals, potato chips and sausages? Not to mention organic ice creams and desserts? Or jelly beans and cookies and even vodka? How are they processed and what “processing aids” are used to make them? Which ones are allowed and which ones are prohibited? As a consumer, this is an important issue because the growth of processed organic foods has been explosive. It’s definitely not just fresh produce or meat anymore. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought has gone into this. According to an Organic Trade Association backgrounder, the National Organic Standards Board in 1995 completed a “massive review” of materials used by organic producers. The board’s recommendations served as the foundation for what is referred to as the “National List.” In 2003, shortly after the USDA’s National Organic Program was officially implemented in 2002, the National List was updated and continues to be updated. The importance of the list was highlighted back in 2001 in comments made by Keith Jones, then program manager of the USDA’s National Organic Program, during a videoconference sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists. “We know that there are a lot of common processing aids that are used across the country that are not on the National List,” he said. “And if it’s not on the National List, come Oct. 21, 2002, you cannot use that particular ingredient or processing aid and label a product as organic.” Although the emphasis was, and continues to be, on organics, food safety does come into the picture. For example, some of the processing aids are cleaning agents used to wash packaging equipment.  As investigations of food poisoning outbreaks have often revealed, potentially deadly pathogens can harbor in processing equipment.

The Food Safety News series on processing aids is sponsored by Micreos.
For an item to be included on the list (there are actually six parts to the list, the last several of which deal with processing aids), it must be approved by the National Organic Standards Board and the USDA. There are hundreds of items ranging from agar (vegetarian gelatin substitute produced from a variety of seaweed vegetation) to yeast on those lists. Anything not on the lists cannot be used. In line with the goals of the National Organic Program, synthetic processing aids should be kept out of organic foods whenever possible. But that’s not always possible, because some of the processing aids needed to make some processed foods just aren’t available in organic or natural forms. Only in those cases, can synthetic alternatives be approved. But even then, certain criteria must be met. For example, the nutritional quality of the food must be maintained when the synthetic substance is used, and it must be listed as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration, which means it contains no heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA. Its use must also be compatible with the goals of organic handling. Advocates for organics say that the importance given to processing aids is yet another example of the emphasis organics puts on how food is produced — from the seed to how the food is processed. It’s what consumers expect, they say. “It’s important for people to know just how well-regulated organics is,” Charlotte Vallaeys, director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute, told Food Safety “It’s not just about ingredients but also about processing aids.” Organic foods are produced using farming methods that don’t use inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In addition, organic foods cannot be processed with irradiation or industrial solvents. Synthetic and nonorganic processing aids that are OK The processing aids on the National List are tied to labeling. Processed products can be labeled as “100 percent organic” as long as the processing aids used to make them are also organic. For a product to be labeled as “organic,” any synthetics in the product may not account for more than 5 percent of the total product, by weight. A common example of allowable processing aids is the use of organic acid(s) such as lactic, acetic, or citric used as part of a livestock carcass wash that is applied before the carcass is chilled. Corn starch and baking soda are some other examples. Some examples of synthetics allowed in processing aids for organic products are familiar items to many people, among them ascorbic acid, a synthetic form of vitamin C, which is used to keep fruits from turning brown when they come into contact with the air. Other familiar examples are carbon dioxide (to carbonate beverages) and Xanthan gum, a thickener. Other allowable synthetics are not so familiar. For example, acidified sodium chlorite can be used as a secondary direct antimicrobial food treatment and indirect food-contact surface sanitizer. And ferrous sulfate can be used for iron enrichment or fortification of foods when required by regulation or recommended by an independent organization. Other allowable synthetics are ethylene for post harvest ripening of tropical fruit and degreening of citrus; phosphoric acid for cleaning food-contact surfaces and equipment only; and sulfur dioxide for use only in wine labeled “made with organic grapes,”  provided that the total sulfite concentration doesn’t exceed 100 ppm. The “nonsynthetics” allowed in the category of “nonorganic substances” include citric acid; rennet (often used for cheese-making); dairy cultures; diatomaceous earth (as a food filtering aid only); tartaric acid made from grape wine; and yeast. Examples of allowable “nonorganically produced agricultural products” are cornstarch (native); kelp for use only as a thickener and dietary supplement; high-methoxypectin (to gel jams and jellies); and water-extracted gums (for thickeners and stabilizers) such as arabic, guar, locust bean and carob bean. Examples of bacteriophages (natural viruses that can kill foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella among others) that are allowed to be used as processing aids are Listex P100 and SalmoFresh. Listex can be used to eradicate Listeria in ready-to-eat meats, and SalmoFresh can be used to kill Salmonella on meat and poultry to be ground up for patties or other food items. Both of these foodborne pathogens can cause serious illnesses and even death. Listex and SalmoFresh are GRAS (generally regarded as safe) and OMRI-listed, which means they are approved for organic use in the United States. Because the USDA classifies them as processing aids, they don’t have to appear on the label. As for ingredients such as sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate and polysorbate 80, often seen on labels on non-organic processed foods, they aren’t on the National List and therefore can’t be used in organic processed foods. That’s true for any processing aid not found on the list. For a processing aid to get on the list, someone or some company must petition for it to be included and it must go through a comprehensive analysis to ensure that it fits in with the goals of organics. It generally takes one to two years to go through the process. As for food handling, high pressure processing (HPP), which kills pathogens and protects food quality, and UV light (not irradiation), which can extend the shelf life and quality of some produce, both may be used in organics. One of the ‘no-nos’ Hexane:  “the dirty little secret” A byproduct of gas refining, hexane is a volatile solvent used with the FDA’s approval to extract oil from soybeans, nuts and olives. Because it’s inexpensive and so effective, hexane is used as a processing aid in many (but not all) veggie burgers and other meat substitutes, health bars, and even some baby formula. “The dirty little secret of the natural soy foods industry is the widespread use of hexane in processing,” says a Cornucopia report. Not surprisingly, hexane, which is classified by the Centers for Disease Control as a neurotoxin and by the Environmental Protection Agency as an air pollutant, is not on the National List of allowable processing aids. Out in the marketplace, consumers looking for meat substitutes, with the thought that eating less meat is good for the planet, often buy “garden burgers” whose soybeans have been processed with hexane, without knowing it. “You’ll never see a label on a garden burger that says “soybeans in this product were immersed in hexane,” said Vallaeys, Cornucopia’s director of Farm and Food Policy. She said that if a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein “you can be pretty sure it was made with soy beans that were processed with hexane — dumped into huge vats of hexane.” “But when buying foods labeled ‘100 percent organic,’ you can be sure they weren’t put into hexane,” she said. The Soyfoods Association of North America says that hexane is used only in the initial steps of soy processing and that almost all of it is eliminated by the time the soy ingredients are used in soy products. But independent testing commissioned by Cornucopia found hexane residues in soy oil, soy grits and soy meal, according to its report on this. So what does this mean for the consumer?  It’s hard to say because the FDA doesn’t monitor hexane in foods, and it doesn’t require companies to test for it. “There are so many things we don’t know about this,” said Vallaeys. “But we do know that it’s a really dangerous substance.” Seth Tibbott, founder and CEO of Tofurky, a company that makes a soy-based turkey-substitute roast as well as other meatless products such as turkey deli slices and sausages, said his company avoids using hexane because it doesn’t belong in natural foods. “How much of a percentage of gasoline do you need in your food?” he said. He sees the use of hexane as “a sleeping giant” in the industry. When people learn about it, they’re horrified,” he said. “But most consumers are more concerned about GMOs and sodium in their food.” His company has always used organic soybeans and traditional lower-tech ways to process them. Even so, he said that even though “it’s indisputable” that traces of hexane can be found in some foods, the food-safety aspects of this are still to be determined. “I don’t think there have been any long-term studies on this, and I can’t say I’ve read any peer-reviewed literature on it, but we prefer to play it safe,” he said. The Cornucopia Institute provides a rundown of soy-based veggie burgers and health bars that are made without using hexane as a processing aid and those that are. A cleaner label? Can there be a “cleaner label” than organics? Is it the best label going for consumers looking for foods with human health and the health of the environment in mind. Organic advocates say that a 100 percent organic label is hard to beat. They point out that organics is about transparency—letting the consumers know what’s in the food they’re eating and how it was produced and processed. In addition, for a food to be certified as “organic,” it needs to go through a third-party certification. Not only that, the certifier has to be certified by the USDA. It would be hard to beat that combination of assurances, they say. “A lot about organics is about following the “precautionary principle,” said Cornucopia’s Vallaeys, citing hydrogenated oils, which studies have shown lead to the gathering of trans fats in the body, as a good example of that. “It was never allowed in organics.”