When the Nashville, NC plant of Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients (CIFI) begins commercial production in about one week, the company will become the only supplier of sweet potato ingredients made solely from U.S.-grown, non-GMO sweet potatoes. The company already has customer contracts for its juice, juice concentrate, granules and flour, according to COO John Kimber.
Why sweet potatoes? CIFI's website states the company set out to fix two problems: provide a market for the overabundance of sweet potatoes produced by North Carolina farmers and give the food industry a domestic supplier of high-quality sweet potato ingredients. In particular, CIFI buys "ugly" sweet potatoes that farmers are unable to sell to the fresh food market and otherwise often have to plow back into the ground. As concerns about food waste increase, more businesses are looking for ways to use produce that doesn't have aesthetic appeal.
Product development began two years ago, with developers working in collaboration with researchers from North Carolina State University to create a process to produce healthy, tasty ingredients. CIFI formed in February 2014 as a subsidiary of Richmond, Virginia, based Universal Corporation, a supplier of leaf tobacco. Sweet potatoes are often grown in rotation with tobacco, and North Carolina produces almost half of US sweet potatoes.
"We've done a lot of bench-type product development work and showcased products at food trade shows," says Kimber. "The range of items includes protein and granola bars, muffins, juice blends, smoothies and salad dressings."
CIFI sees its sweet potato juice concentrate as a natural sugar ingredient that food manufacturers looking to achieve clean labels can use to replace high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This concentrate might have the opportunity to make inroads, given the ongoing trial where a coalition of major U.S. sugar growers and refiners take issue with the Corn Refiners Association claim that HFCS is natural.
"It's simply a matter of substitution with some adjustment of the finished quantity to achieve performance results," says Kimber. Products may also require other adjustments in their formulation.
Kimber also says the company's product developers have found the sweet potato flour works well up to about a 20% direct substitution in formulations of breads and snacks. The company's dehydrated sweet potato granules have applications that include snack foods, cereals, and sports nutrition products. With US snack food production expected to reach $38 billion in 2015, and companies looking for healthier ingredients to boost lagging cereal sales, these markets represent a potentially large opportunity.
"We see a bright future. We're a domestic manufacturer with full traceability back to our growing partners. We have an abundant supply and great new facility with the latest technology for making safe ingredients," says Kimber. "We have received a considerable amount of interest domestically, from Canada and from outside of North America. We're very buoyant about what the future holds for us. In time, we hope to add products beyond sweet potatoes."