A year after the US Department of Agriculture gave organic food and beverage manufacturers a Nov. 3, 2014 deadline for swapping silicon dioxide for organic rice hulls, RIBUS Inc.’s Nu-Flow ingredient saw a 150% boost in sales over that same timeframe. But sales of its natural rice hulls are far outpacing organic.
SiO2 is a synthetic ingredient permitted since 1990 for use as a flow or water-absorbing agent in organic products. It has been the industry standby for foods and beverage manufacturers looking to prevent lumping and clumping, including dried fruit and vegetable powders, ground chili products, fish oil, soup powders, sugars, cake mixes, non-dairy creamers, salt, spices, hot chocolate, and yeast/flour-based powdered mixes.
But last May, the USDA called on manufacturers to drop SiO2 in favor of organic rice hulls, where commercially available, following the National Organic Standard Board's recommendations. (Use of SiO2 as a defoamer is still permitted. Read the Federal Register amendment .)
“Silicon dioxide was the standard for many years—the product works,” Steve Peirce, CEO of St. Louis-based RIBUS, told FoodNavigator-USA. “But in the current marketplace consumers are after more label-friendly ingredients. And that’s extremely true in the world of organics. Nu-Flow is able to offer an alternative to this chemistry lab ingredient in natural or organic source.”
RIBUS launched Nu-Flow in 2007, initially targeting spice manufacturers as a natural anticaking agent, and has seen sales and applications increase steadily in the years since. It’s currently used as a flavor carrier, plating substrate and flow aid in everything from powdered beverages to milks, dried fruits and vegetables, and gravies and sauces, with growing interest in dietary supplement and functional beverage applications.
Natural selling multiples over organic, given broader market clean label appeal
But the USDA decision, coupled with consumers’ growing interest in clean, easy-to-understand ingredient lists, resulted in a significant sales boost for the brand. Indeed, the natural iteration of Nu-Flow is far outpacing sales of the certified organic ingredient, which Peirce attributed to wider interest in clean label ingredients. (Nu-Flow appears on labels as rice concentrate.)
“We heard quickly from customers, ‘we like your label declaration, but we don’t need organic. Can you make it natural?’ So we were able to bring out a natural version," he said. "There’s a lot of talk right now in changes in legislation around organic; however, natural is selling multiples of organic without any legislative push. People ask me, why is that? The answer I always come back to is: it has good functionality and shows consumer demand for cleaner labels.”
Nu-Flow is produced by steam-sterilizing rice hulls to control microbes and grinding them to a very fine powder. Peirce said the ingredient is a one-to-one replacer in about 90% of applications. Those manufacturers switching from synthetic to natural won’t incur additional cost, which isn’t the case for organic Nu-Flow, given the added cost of organic raw materials and processing. But Peirce hopes that will change as RIBUS brings additional production facilities on line and achieves economies of scale.
Indeed, as much as the company has enjoyed the recent sharp uptick in sales, Peirce said that given the multifaceted (functionality and clean label) appeal of both Ribus' natural and organic rice concentrate in an increasingly fragmented marketplace, the future looks bright for Nu-Flow.
“Being in more traditional functionality but with a clean label declaration, we believe that is going to be a trend rather than a fad”—an important distinction, he added. “In the right position in the marketplace, a fad will make you rich and bring high notoriety in a short time, but that will go away just as quickly—as was the case with fat free 20-odd years ago. Long, steady growth is the way to go.”