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Farmer and food company both win race to health market

Waconia, Minn. — Improve your eyes, save your skin and help a family farm — all over breakfast.

Tom and Donna Stacy say you can, and they have cooked up the food to prove it. At Organic Foods, Inc., their 12-year-old company, the Stacys stress nutrition, sustainable farming, good value and taste. Their sandwich wraps, salsas, soups, hummus and cookies are made only from organic ingredients.

Working with Welcome, Minn. grower Doug Hilgendorf, the Stacys have added a new product: an organic puffed-corn cereal with soy flour that is high in lutein and lysine. Currently sold in bulk, they hope soon to box the cereal for grocery shelves.

Benefits for farmers

Organic Foods buys Hilgendorf’s high-lysine corn directly for a higher price than he could get in the commodities market.

“One of our primary functions is to work with farmers,” Tom says. “Typically, we give the farmer more money for his crops than what he can sell for out on the open market. It makes us money, and it makes him money.

“We bought beans from a farmer who was asking 50 cents a pound. We gave him 55, because we were paying 60 or 70 cents a pound (elsewhere). We do that with rice, flour, black beans, pinto beans, lentils, kidney beans and soybeans.” Regular suppliers such as Hilgendorf can also earn royalties on Organic Foods products.

Tom and Donna understand that growing and manufacturing organic foods aren’t enough to ensure farmers’ stability. They see a need to educate consumers about farming and nutrition so they do “not just consume something because it tastes good,” Tom says. “The most important thing in our lives, we know the least about — and that’s food.”

All eyes on nutrition

Tom worked on the corn cereal formula for three years, researching the benefits of lutein and lysine. “The cereal is a unique blend of ingredients,” he says. “We were looking for something to give us an edge in the marketplace, but at the same time a focus on health and nutrition.”

Lutein was added for its benefits to the eyes, Tom says. Studies have shown that lutein helps reduce the risk of macular degeneration. Found in plants such as spinach and marigolds, lutein is also an antioxidant that can reduce the effects of ultraviolet rays on skin, Tom says.

High-lysine corn was also chosen for its nutritional benefits. Lysine, an essential amino acid, helps the body absorb calcium. It also aids in the formation of collagen, antibodies, enzymes and hormones.

Like lutein and lysine, all the ingredients in Organic Foods products are chosen for nutritional value, Tom says. For example, their burrito-like “Healthy Wraps,” in flavors such as Mediterranean and Spicy Thai, “are complete protein, not just protein.”

AURI food scientist Charan Wadhawan has helped the Stacys measure nutritional values for Organic Foods products and has assisted with formulation. Adding nutritional ingredients is “fairly easy” from a manufacturing standpoint, Wadhawan says. “It’s not a major part of the formula. It’s something to enhance the value of the product.”

However, sometimes enhancements do affect product results, Tom says. For example, they tried adding soy flour to the corn puff mix, but it “looked more like dog food when it came through the extruder. And there’s so much oil and fat in flax, it wouldn’t let the corn puff.”

A market squeeze

With organic ingredients becoming part of many foods, Tom says the small company is struggling to compete.

Organic Foods hummus and wraps are now sold in mainstream stores such as Byerly’s, Lunds, Whole Foods Markets, co-ops, Kowalski’s, Rainbow and Cub Foods, but they are up against heavily promoted foods from giant companies, Tom says.

“The organic world now wants to be like the commercial world in terms of profits,” he says. “It’s changing, not for the better. Now the big boys have jumped into the organic world, and they’re beating everybody up with their money.”

Corporate brands typically emphasize a single, organic ingredient, Tom says, while Organic Foods stresses the bigger nutritional picture. “It’s not just lutein that is the leading edge, it’s also high-lysine corn and organic caramel flavor,” which the company developed

Why lutein and lysine?

Organic Foods adds natural lutein and lysine to some of its products as health enhancers.

Lutein is a carotenoid found in spinach and some other vegetables, marigolds, alfalfa and egg yolks. Carotenoids are pigments that act as anti-oxidants, helping protect the body from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, other radiation, cigarette smoke and stress. The body does not make lutein; it must be obtained through diet or supplements. Medical studies have shown that lutein can help prevent or slow down age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. It is not, however, a cure for the disease.

Lysine is an essential amino acid necessary for the body to absorb calcium. It helps form collagen, which is found in bone, cartilage and connective tissue. It also helps the body produce hormones, enzymes and antibodies. People who don’t get enough lysine may feel tired, unable to concentrate, irritable, and experience anemia, hair loss and reproductive problems.