The company is also calling on firms to carefully vet their stevia suppliers and “look well beyond the paperwork.”
Few companies offer organic stevia, let alone certified-organic stevia, but stevia supplier Sweet Green Fields (SGF; Bellingham, WA) is one company that does. SGF gained USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certification for its stevia extracts late last year. The company recently harvested its first, full-scale commercial certified-organic stevia crop. It describes how it had to adapt its stevia processing to meet NOP regulations.
Standard stevia production typically uses chemicals that do not meet NOP guidelines, Mel Jackson, SGF’s vice president of science, tells Nutritional Outlook. “Standard stevia processing procedures use chemicals that are not listed on the USDA NOP’s national list of acceptable processing aids. Therefore, other methods and processing aids must be found and used that do comply.”
A few years ago, SGF began exploring alternatives. For instance, it needed to find an organic source of the ethanol used in its extraction process. NOP allows only the use of organic chemical production and cleaning aids. But this was easier said than done, Jackson says. “One of the challenges we overcame was the apparent complete lack of USDA certified-organic ethanol in China.”
The company doesn’t disclose the proprietary processing modifications it made to meet NOP standards, but Jackson says the company “has achieved means to clarify crude extracts and has developed downstream processing and cleaning technologies that allow complete compliance.”
Other challenges included going through the NOP inspection process itself, including “informing the authorized organic inspectors on the stevia-specific nuances of complying with the USDA NOP regulations,” Jackson says. “This involved inviting and hosting inspectors on numerous occasions to see processes as they were developed in order to gain their understanding and their ultimate approval of this truly organic process and product.”
SGF now offers both USDA certified-organic stevia, as well as non-organic stevia extracts. Supplying certified-organic stevia fills a current industry gap, the firm says. “The vast majority of stevia extracts currently marketed are not organic [but] we have received many requests from companies looking for an organic line of stevia extracts,” Jackson says.
Organic certification is also a verifiable way to confirm the ingredients’ origins. “Certified-organic products offer companies the ability to make confident ‘organic’ product claims that can easily be validated, as opposed to ‘natural’ product claims where there is no FDA definition, which has resulted in litigation over product labeling,” Jackson says.
The company is also calling on companies to carefully vet their stevia suppliers and “look well beyond the paperwork.” In a press release, the firm said, “Full compliance comes, as most will know, with using certified-organic stevia leaf, but not many will know that the production stages where the clarification of crude extracts occurs, and the column chromatography, need to be overhauled from existing practices.”
Is there a taste difference between organic and non-organic stevia? No, says SGF. The company says its organic product line has the same “great taste profile” as its non-organic Puresse 100, Optesse HPX, and Optesse HPS stevia extracts.
SGF says it took years of research and development to refine its organic processing techniques. “It has taken several years to develop the technology and protocols to both conform to USDA NOP organic regulations and produce crops that will economically compete on a global scale,” the company said in the press release.
“When you commit to providing a seed supply that is certified organic and move that to a commercial certified-organic growing environment (that doesn’t afford the opportunity to utilize inorganic fertilizers, or agrochemicals), while at the same time you’re working to mechanize every phase of crop production, there is much to learn with several years of trials to get commercially viable results,” added Hal Teegarden, SGF’s vice president of agriculture. “At SGF, we are very fortunate to be able to work with some of the best growers and Land Grant research partners in the world to collectively build a new USA agriculture crop.”
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