Flavoring Organically with Extracts
By Julie Weisman
Surprisingly, there is nothing about being organic that makes an extract fundamentally different from its conventional counterpart. However, it is useful to understand the basic definitions and uses of various types of extracts for recipe formulation. These extract guidelines will hold true, with a few exceptions, regardless of whether we are talking about an organic product or a conventional one.
The Random House Dictionary defines the noun “extract” as “a solution or preparation containing the active principles of a drug, plant juice, or the like.” As a verb, extract means to “separate or obtain from a mixture by pressure, distillation, treatment with solvents.” It is this last reference that describes how we, in the food processing industry, generally think of this category of flavorings.
The use of solvents to remove the aromatic compounds from a botanical source is what broadly defines the result as an extract. In addition, it is common to think of any flavoring carried in alcohol as an extract, regardless of how the aromatic compounds were removed from their botanical source.
The most common food-grade solvent is alcohol. There are a number of alcohols in general use in the food industry, including ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol.
In organic food processing, the use of synthetics are largely banned in the National Organic Program (NOP) regulation, and soon may be banned altogether. We are therefore limited to ethyl alcohol, which in an organic form is most frequently distilled from organic corn.
Prior to 1998, organic flavor extracts were almost impossible to produce because until that time the only organic alcohol available was a by-product of the wine industry and had a very strong aroma of grapes. This made it unsuitable for use in manufacturing almost any other type of flavor product.
Organic Extracts Available on the Market
Vanilla is indisputably the “Grande Dame” of extracts. In any line of branded extracts, vanilla is the anchor, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of retail extract sales. Perhaps it is for this reason that vanilla is the only extract with a legally defined (at least in the U.S.) standard of identity. In 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifies that vanilla extract is “the solution in one gallon of aqueous ethyl alcohol of the sapid and odiferous principles extractible” from 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans. It further specifies that the ethyl alcohol be not less than 35 percent by volume, though it can be more.
The FDA allows for the addition of five other ingredients: glycerin, propylene glycol, sugar, dextrose and corn syrup. Of these five, only two are permitted in an organic product: sugar and corn syrup. The addition of any other ingredients or a reduction to less than 35 percent alcohol necessitates calling the product “vanilla flavor” rather than
Almond is probably the second most widely-used flavor extract. It has no standard of identity and is usually not obtained by solvent extraction. Oil of bitter almond, which is not the same as the almonds we snack on, is suspended in an aqueous alcohol solution, while hazelnut extract is made from hazelnut paste, which is diluted in aqueous alcohol and often contains an organic sweetener.
Organic citrus extracts are also available and, like almond extract, can be made from citrus oils suspended in alcohol and water. Alternately, the aromatic compounds in the oil can be alcohol-extracted and the actual oil discarded. Organic lemon and orange are the most commonly used, though organic grapefruit and lime are also available.
Finally, organic mint oils can be used to make extracts. Peppermint extract is called for most frequently, and spearmint extract, though less widely offered, does exist.
Key Factors in Bringing Out Flavor
To get the most out of the extracts you use in organic product formulation, focus on the two F’s: fold strength and flavor profile. We’ll use vanilla extract to illustrate these key factors here, although the general principles can be applied to any type of extract you’re using in your formulation.
The vanilla extract defined above would be considered a single-fold vanilla extract, the 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans constituting one unit of those extractible principles. This is the strength called for in recipes, and consequently is virtually the only strength available in the retail trade. In commercial production, where vanilla extract is widely used in dairy and baked products, it is more frequently employed at two or four-fold strength. What does this mean? Two-fold vanilla extract contains the extractible principles of double the amount of vanilla beans defined in a “unit,” or 26.7 ounces in that gallon of aqueous ethyl alcohol. Four-fold equals 53.4 ounces, and so on.
Why are higher fold strengths more popular for commercial use? The reasons for this are often economic. Although a two-fold vanilla extract costs nearly twice as much as a gallon of single-fold, it also delivers double the flavor impact per gallon of a single-fold because it contains the extractives of twice the amount of vanilla beans. To put it another way, a half-gallon of two-fold extract has the same flavor value as an entire gallon of single-fold. However, one gallon of two-fold weighs half as much, takes up half the space and requires half the amount of packaging and handling of its single-fold counterpart. In other words, you get more flavor-bang for your transportation, warehouse and labor buck using higher-fold strengths.
The requirements of product formulation are important in determining fold-strength. In general, the lower fold-strengths are the most miscible. However, sometimes it is important to get more flavor into the product using less of the other extract ingredients. This is the case with ice cream, for example, because the alcohol lowers its melting point. You want to get a lot of vanilla flavor into the product without a lot of alcohol. This is also the case in candy manufacturing, in which the addition of any liquid alters the profile of the finished product. Five and ten-fold strengths would not be uncommon to use in this case.
While it is important to select an appropriate fold-strength when choosing a vanilla or any other type of extract, flavor profile is considered the most critical factor. The flavor profile of any vanilla is determined by a variety of factors, such as the origin of the beans, method of curing, extraction method used and even the age of the extract. For example, the majority of vanilla beans used across the globe are grown and cured in Madagascar. Beans from this origin are often referred to as “Bourbon” vanilla beans and their rich creamy notes have been the preferred vanilla flavor profile in the U.S. since World War II.
The second largest producer of vanilla beans is Indonesia, where the humid climate led to a method of curing the beans over smoking wood coals to prevent mold. Historically, these beans and the extract produced from them have had a distinctly smoky flavor. In recent years, Indonesian curers have developed methods to produce a more Bourbon-type bean. Understanding the differences in the flavor profile you should expect from beans originating in Madagascar versus Indonesia is an important distinction if you do not want your vanilla bean ice cream to taste “smoky” in its final product form.
Similarly, the method of extraction used should be considered since it can also affect the final flavor profile and cost to the processor. For instance, in addition to the use of the ethyl alcohol extraction method as described earlier, another method of extraction that is currently allowed under the NOP is CO2 or “supercritical fluid” extraction. This method uses liquid carbon dioxide as the solvent and must be performed under a combination of high pressure and low temperature to maintain the CO2 in liquid form. Only the essential oils, fatty acids and waxes—the most aromatic compounds—are extracted, leaving behind alcohols, sugars and other carbohydrates. The result is a highly concentrated extract and is considered a “cleaner” flavor by many experts. For this reason, CO2 extracts are commonly used in fine fragrance applications.
Many organic spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon and clove, are available as CO2 extracts, as are citrus and vanilla. However, CO2 extracts are very expensive in comparison with their ethyl alcohol-extracted cousins, which sometimes makes them impractical to use in flavor applications. As such, the potential for additional costs should be factored into the product formulation budget.
Many organic extracts are available for use in flavoring organic processed foods. Extraction methods and additional flavor ingredients must be in accordance with the NOP. Other than these limitations, organic extracts do not behave any differently than their conventional counterparts and are indispensable for anyone formulating organic processed products. Flavor away!
Julie Weisman is Vice President of Elan Vanilla Co. Under her leadership, Elan developed the first organic vanilla extracts and concentrates in commercial quantities. As founder of Flavorganics, LLC, the first retail brand of organic extracts and syrups in the U.S., she oversees all aspects of organic certification and compliance for Elan Vanilla, Flavorganics and its co-packers.
She has been an active member of the Manufacturing, Processing, Packaging and Labeling (MPPL) Subcommittee of the Organic Trade Association’s Quality Assurance Council since 1998, and participated in the crafting of the language of portions of the National Organic Program, especially with regard to Organic Handling Requirements, Product Composition and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. She is also a member of the National Organic Standards Board. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.