Grown in the U.S.A.
by Jeff Gelski
Products with ingredients sourced in this country may appeal to more than just those consumers who chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” at Olympic events. Yes, patriotism may be a plus, but food manufacturers also may consider other benefits, including supply chain control and reduced carbon footprint, when buying ingredients close to home.
Consumers may associate food products with ingredients grown in the United States as being “local.” To point out the rise in demand for local food, HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla., cites U.S. Department of Agriculture data showing the number of farmers’ markets in the United States increased 54% over the past five years.
“While most shoppers agree on the benefits of ‘local’ food, believing they are healthier and associating them with natural, they often define ‘locally grown’ very differently,” HealthFocus International said. “According to the 2012 HealthFocus Global Trend Survey, 40% of shoppers in the Americas, and an even higher rate of Asian shoppers, define locally grown as being in the country where they live, which indicates a very different need for many shoppers than food that is truly local.
“However, the outlook of European shoppers remains very different. In Europe, over half of shoppers believe that locally grown means grown within 50 kilometers of where they live.”
Stevia in the Southeast
Sweeteners may be coming more of an option for ingredient sourcing in the United States.
Sweet Green Fields, Bellingham, Wash., operates a U.S. growing program for stevia plants, which traditionally have been grown primarily in China and tropical regions. The value of stevia as an additive for use in food and beverage manufacture totaled $110 million in 2013, according to a report issued in January of this year by Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research. The value is forecast to grow to $275 million by 2017 as food and beverage companies seek to reduce sugar in their products.
Sweet Green Fields is working with growers in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The company is in talks with baking companies in North America, said Mike Quin, senior vice-president of sales and marketing. Supply chain transparency is one benefit, he said.
In regard to traceability and food safety, Sweet Green Fields knows the fields where the stevia plants were grown and where they were stored, said Hal Teegarden, vice-president of agriculture.
Sweet Green Fields points to a 2011 report from the Shelton Group, an advertising and marketing agency in Knoxville, Tenn. The report said the popularity of “Grown in the U.S.A.” claims reflects Americans being worried about contamination, water treatment and crop fertilization in other countries, and their desire to support family farms and local sourcing.
Growing stevia plants is similar to growing tobacco, Mr. Teegarden said. Both are transplanted crops that harvest at similar times of the year, such as late August or mid-September in the case of stevia. Since equipment is similar, there’s not a lot of capital investment.
“The learning curve is not real steep,” Mr. Teegarden said of tobacco growers switching to stevia. He added peanut growers and cotton farmers also might test out stevia.
Stevia growers in equatorial countries may have crops year-round.
“It’s quite a challenge for the plant,” Mr. Teegarden said. “It’s like being in production all the time.”
Stevia crops in the Southeast of the United States are dormant in winter, he said. Starting in the second year, crops may have a late June harvest and another harvest in late August or early September.
The U.S. crop size for Sweet Green Fields in 2014 may increase two times over the crop size in the 2013 harvest, Mr. Teegarden said.
“We’re increasing our crop size fairly significantly,” he said. “I would say we have a very aggressive growth program that we’re working on over the next few years.”
The Georgia Department of Agriculture and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have supported the stevia growing efforts of Sweet Green Fields. The company has a research and development group and a formulation group to assist bakers wanting to use stevia extracts to reduce sugar in their products, Mr. Quin said.
300 types of honey
Honey is another sweetener option for sourcing in the United States. Different geographic areas have different types of honey, according to the National Honey Board, Firestone, Colo. The color and flavor of honey differs depending on the nectar source visited by the honey bees, said Catherine Barry, director of marketing for the National Honey Board.
“Using locally-sourced honey allows bakers and food manufacturers to take advantage of both regional flavor preferences and varieties,” she said. “There are more than 300 different types of honey in the United States, each with a unique flavor and color profile influenced by the types of blossoms the bees visit when searching for nectar. Bakers and food manufacturers can use different varieties of honey, with different tastes, to expand product lines and appeal directly to consumers.”
Eli’s Cheesecake Co. in Chicago has sourced honey locally for its Wildflower Honey Cheesecake, Ms. Barry said. The bakery purchases honey from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences to use in the cheesecakes.
“Buying locally-sourced honey allows bakers to promote a natural sweetener that not only contributes great flavor but also contributes to the local economy and minimizes the carbon footprint of a bakery food,” Ms. Barry said.
She listed several regional flavors and preferences. Bakers and food manufacturers in California and Florida may source orange blossom honey locally. In North Dakota, buckwheat honey from local apiaries may provide a robust flavor to hearth bread, she said.
“Honey color ranges from nearly colorless to dark brown, and its flavor varies from delectably mild to distinctively bold,” Ms. Barry said. “As a general rule, light-colored honey is milder in taste, and dark-colored honey is stronger. Honey is produced in every state, but depending on floral source location, certain types of honey are produced only in a few regions.”
A Senate bill introduced last year might prove helpful in keeping some inexpensive imported honey from having labels that mislead U.S. consumers, said Vaughn Bryant, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
“Large importing companies take all the pollen out of honey because they claim it makes the honey clearer and prevents crystallization, therefore making it easier to sell,” he said. “However, by removing the pollen, you also remove clues needed to verify where the honey was produced and what nectar sources are dominant. This means that with no traces of pollen, honey sellers can take cheap honey and claim it’s a type that sells for a premium price.”
Dr. Bryant supports Senate bill S-662, a customs reauthorization bill.
“If this bill is passed, it would require sellers to be accurate in terms of what they put on honey labels,” he said. “There is no law now that requires that type of ‘truth in labeling’ for honey.”
Quinoa and chickpeas
Unlike honey, quinoa is not a well-known ingredient sourced from the United States, and most of the world’s commercial chickpeas are grown in India. The two ingredients may gain more of a U.S. foothold thanks to recent efforts.
According to the Whole Grains Council, Boston, quinoa crops thrive on the high plains of the Andes in South America. Chief growing regions are in Peru and Bolivia. Quinoa also is grown in Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina.
U.S. demand for products with quinoa exists. According to Innova Market Insights. Duiven, The Netherlands, the number of global new product launches featuring quinoa grew almost 50% in the 52-week period ended Sept. 30, 2013. The number has risen more than five-fold over a five-year period. Demand from U.S. consumers largely has been responsible for the growth of new products featuring quinoa, according to Innova Market Insights.
Researchers at Washington State University, Pullman, Wash., have led efforts to grow quinoa in the Pacific Northwest. Five successful variety lines were hand-harvested at the Washington State University organic farm in Pullman last year. Pre-harvest sprouting caused by heavy rainfall ruined two test plots. Deer ate quinoa at a test plot in Idaho.
Quinoa is sensitive to environmental variations, changing its growing patterns in response to small differences in moisture, temperature and soil conditions, according to Washington State University.
“Washington is fortunate to have a climate conducive to the production of the highest quality quinoa ... but the industry is still in its infancy,” said Kevin Murphy, an assistant professor in the department of crop and soil sciences.
Like demand for quinoa, demand for chickpeas has increased since it is used in hummus. At least one study has used chickpeas in grain-based foods, too.
According to the U.S.D.A., India produces 80% to 90% of the world’s chickpea supply. Most of the chickpeas produced in the United States are grown in California, Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Like stevia, chickpea might serve as an alternative to tobacco for growers in the Southeast.
Sabra Dipping Co., L.L.C., owned jointly by PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., and the Strauss Group, based in Israel, last year opened a new research and development facility in Chesterfield County, Va., on the same site as Sabra’s hummus manufacturing facility. The facility serves as a culinary center, research laboratory and pilot plant.
Sabra Dipping Co. and Virginia State University, St. Petersburg, Va., are working together on field trials for growing chickpeas in Virginia.
“Tobacco acreage is declining in Virginia,” said Harbans L. Bhardwaj, Ph.D., a professor at Virginia State University. “Most any summer crop could be helpful if an adequate market exists or can be developed. Chickpea is an interesting crop because a ready market exists for use of chickpeas in hummus production.”
Dr. Bhardwaj, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., and a master’s of science degree from Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, India, said the No. 1 goal for growing chickpeas in Virginia in 2014 is identifying Aschochyta fungal resistant/tolerant varieties. Seed yield is another objective.
The use of chickpeas in spaghetti was included in a study that appeared on-line March 7 in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology. Researchers from the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Yautepec, Mexico, and the U.S.D.A.’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif., found potential for developing gluten-free spaghetti with a reduced amount of glycemic carbohydrates from food ingredients such as chickpea, unripe plantain and maize flour.
Thus, the claim “grown in the U.S.A.” might bring along other claims, such as gluten-free and reduced sugar.
Honey types by U.S. production areas
Alfalfa: Produced throughout Canada and the United States from the purple alfalfa blossoms, alfalfa honey is light in color with a mild flavor and an aroma similar to beeswax.
Avocado: Primarily produced in California, avocado honey is gathered from avocado blossoms. The well-rounded honey has a rich, buttery flavor and a flowery aftertaste.
Blueberry: Produced in New England and Michigan, blueberry honey is taken from the white flowers of the blueberry bush. The nectar makes a light, amber-colored honey with a moderate fruity flavor and the aroma of green leaves.
Buckwheat: Typically produced in Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and eastern Canada, buckwheat honey is dark and full-bodied. It has been found to contain more antioxidant compounds than some lighter honeys.
Clover: Clovers contribute more to honey production in the United States than any other group of plants. Red clover, Alsike clover and the white and yellow sweet clovers are the most important for honey production. Clover honey varies in color from clear to light amber. It has a sweet, flowery flavor and a mild taste.
Fireweed: Primarily produced in the northern Pacific states and Canada, fireweed honey is light in color and comes from fireweed, a perennial herb that grows immediately after a forest fire. Fireweed honey is a sweet honey with subtle, tea-like notes.
Orange blossom: Produced in Florida, southern California and parts of Texas, orange blossom honey is usually light in color and mild in flavor. It has a fresh scent and a light citrus taste. Orange blossom honey often comes from a combination of citrus sources.