From "What You Need to Know About Sourcing Organic Ingredients"
By Sarah Fister Gale

Organic Sugar: How Sweet It Is

"Organic certification does not guarantee the quality of food," says Bruce Kirk, president of Corigins, a U.S.-based supplier of traceable natural and organic ingredients, including sugar, cocoa, coffee and other sweeteners. Kirk has been involved in the organic sugar industry for nearly 20 years.

"All organic is, is a guarantee that something has been grown, harvested and processed according to the NOP standards."

While organic certification is a guarantee that a product is free of pesticides, hormones and chemicals, the NOP regulation doesnít cover food safety standards. Thatís why Kirk encourages anyone sourcing raw organic ingredients to insist that their resources also have HACCP programs in place as proof that they are adhering to high standards for food safety.

That includes standards such as having a fully enclosed facility for processing; the proper use of hair nets and masks; testing of critical control points, and ample, safe, climate controlled storage for packaged product.

"In South America, a lot of places do packaging outside," he points out. "You have to pay attention to how a product is handled, not just from an organic standpoint, but from a safety standpoint."

Corigins sends HACCP experts to its farms to help the suppliers put HACCP programs in place, and they conduct frequent visits and audits.

"HACCP is a contributing factor for consistency and food grade. Thatís important to us."

To further ensure food safety, Kirk suggests insisting on product liability insurance for the supplier "because an insurance company wonít underwrite the product unless the producer has quality production procedures in place."

Beyond food safety procedures, the quality of sugar, cocoa and other flavors can be affected by everything from planting and harvesting techniques, to annual rainfall, soil conditions and seed quality.

"Even if cocoa beans are grown in the same climate, variations in the way they are harvested and roasted will change their profile," Kirk says. And, every regionís unique growing conditions result in identifiable variations in taste, color and texture.

"The specs for these kinds of products should be on a very narrow bandwidth, yet a lot of importers have product specs that are so broad they wonít satisfy your needs," he says.

"To ensure consistency, choose a supplier that guarantees product specifications in a specific range. For example, if you are sourcing organic sugar, demand that its International Commission for Uniform Methods of Sugar Analysis (ICUMSA) color range is limited to a variance of no more than 200 points.

An ICUMSA rating is an international unit for expressing the purity of the sugar in solution, and is directly related to the color of the sugar. For example, demanding that your sugar has a rating between 300-and-500 ensures the color and purity throughout the batch will be consistent, whereas a rating of 300-to-1500, which some importers might offer, promises a wide range of grain sizes and colors.

"A wide variation in the range totally alters the taste," Kirk says.

Specifications may also include physical properties, nutritional facts, microbiological purity, packaging methods, and production dates, he adds.

If you donít understand the specs for these products, work with your formulators or a food technologist to define the product specs in is much detail as possible, including how the product is grown and maintained along with the audits and programs that support those specs, then insist on proof that they are being maintained through proof of testing and authenticity. Once you know exactly what you want, send those specs to suppliers to see if they can comply.

"A lot of suppliers wonít make quality visits or do inspections," Kirk says. "You should know that up front." And, as with any other raw ingredient, avoid mixes whenever possible because they are tough to replicate and add unnecessary challenges to the process.

In the end, whether you are sourcing sugar and spice, or corn and beef, trust and partnership is everything. All of the experts agree that having relationships with your suppliers or farmers is the best way to guarantee quality and consistency with every ingredient purchase. "When you have strong partnerships," Kirk says, "everyone benefits."

Sarah Fister Gale is Editor of Organic Processing Magazine. She can be reached at