A few years back, the hype was all about single-origin chocolate. And why not? We live in a world where a single pizza can have ingredients from 60 countries. Highlighting foods that come from just one place seems a far more natural idea.
But why, exactly, are single-origin foods important? Are they just trendy, or is there something more to this idea?
1. Single-Origin Foods Create Transparency between the Seller and the Buyer
The Real Co. is a great example of transparency at work. No overarching body currently regulates the term 'single-origin', which means that it's up to companies like The Real Co. to be transparent about the standards they hold themselves to.
The Real Co. has a very precise definition of single-origin, which is at the heart of its goals. The company, which recently launched in the U.S. as the first single-origin global food company, currently offers single-origin basmati rice, Himalayan pink rock salt and raw cane sugar, each of which hails from one and only one farm, printed on the front of each bag or box.
"We define Single-Origin as one farm, not just one region," says Elbanna. "A farm may be owned by numerous owners, or even be located in neighboring plots of land, however, Single-Origin means the food in each labeled packed ONLY comes from one farm and one location."
"We believe it is the right of every person on the planet to know where their foods come from," says Elbanna. This right, in the opinion of the Real Food Co., is best exercised when single-origin food companies are transparent with their consumers -- where the food comes from is easy to communicate and understand via this model.
2. Single-Origin Foods Allow Producers to Concentrate on Quality
Arthur Gillett is a co-founder and director of research at HowGood, an independent research organization based in Brooklyn. The company rates food products based on sustainability, which means that single-origin foods land smack in the middle of the company's purview.
"We consider single-origin a qualified net positive, as it's a go to marketing term for direct trade relationships that help to sell products on the basis of quality rather than price," says Gillett. "Coffee beans, for example, have been effectively sold as a commodity, and those financial incentives invite a race to the bottom for labor conditions, environmental conditions and anything else impacted by a constant need to cut the cost of production."
The coffee example that Gillett highlights is perhaps why, as with chocolate, coffee is one of the most widely seen single-origin foods out there. And the question of the quality in your daily joe is one of the major reasons why, according to Roark Adeline, who manages operations for a single-origin exclusive coffee service called the Moustache Coffee Club.
The quality of the beans at Moustache is the most important factor in selling them -- and for good reason. "Different beans have different roasting times and temperatures that they taste best at, so when you blend them you might be roasting one bean at an optimal temperature, but not others," says Adeline. "Additionally, buying single-origin coffees assures that robusta beans won't be added to when you are drinking to fill it out for volume."
Robusta beans have more caffeine than arabica beans, which are the main variety used in coffee, but they have a burnt flavor (often compared to the smell of burnt rubber). Why use them? Because they're about half the price of arabica. With a single-origin coffee, you can be sure that any blends are just creations from leftover arabica beans and not being bulked up with robusta.
"I would trust a blend from a place that roasts good single-origins, and in some ways I find the single origin designation useful for establishing confidence in quality," says Adeline.
But some companies forgo blending altogether. In fact, that's at the root of the business plan of TOLERANT, a company that has recently begun offering a revolutionary, single-ingredient product line. While the offerings of places like The Real Co. are single-origin and single-ingredient, TOLERANT has a different goal in creating its line, eschewing the single-origin moniker for a single-ingredient ideal: all of its pastas are made from either red lentils, black beans or green lentils.
In using only one ingredient, it's easier to control the ecological factors that are of importance, in TOLERANT's case, all non-GMO, vegan and certified organic.
"Economically, it often establishes a venue of distribution for farmers and growers globally, who might not otherwise be able to share their commodity with the world," says Shawn Pinsky, Vice-President of Operations.
"Although, TOLERANT is not specifically a single-origin product, we are single ingredient and relate to the desire to influence clean eating and continue to introduce delicious non-processed foods in the market."
Single-origin, therefore, is not the only important criterion when looking to uphold the ideals of this market niche.
3. Single-Origin Foods are Better for the Grower
One of the main elements of the marketing campaigns surrounding single-origin foods has always been the welfare of the producers -- and that's for good reason.
The main interest in creating single-origin foods at The Real Co., aside from providing them to consumers, is to help individual farms offer organic and non-GMO certified foods at a fraction of the cost by cutting out middle men.
The Real Co. enters into partnerships with farmers and growers worldwide so that individual producers can take advantage of these global distribution systems.
"From an ecological standpoint, it is always best to grow foods in a sustainable manner, as our farms do every day," says Elbanna. "When you cut out the middle man, that is a cost savings, so this approach also serves an important economical advantage to consumers and grocery stores alike."
Even when the ethical issues of growing are not at the forefront of a decision to open a single-origin company, they still enter into play, becoming, perhaps not the most important issue for every company, but the issue at the heart of the movement.
"Our reasons for only selling single-origin coffee start with taste, but they are tied very closely to ethical issues as well," says Adeline.
Possible Problems with Single-Origin Foods
There are a handful of possible problems and questions that could be raised when considering single-origin foods, however. The idea of a single-origin food is to bring local food to a global market... but is that what we want? Shouldn't local food stay local, particularly for environmental concerns?
For Gillett, another question remains. "Single-origin in marketing is used almost as loosely as natural in food marketing, and there is no guarantee that a single-origin mark indicates a real or significant increase in value to the farmer, improvement in conditions for the labor or decrease in environmental impact," he says.
In other words, single-origin remains one of those labels that doesn't mean a whole lot, at least not on its own.
"When we see a single-origin, it's a good sign and often, but not always, a reason for optimism about what we'll find when we start our research," says Gillett.
The answer to both questions is to take research into your own hands. Make sure that the single-origin food companies you are patronizing are companies that you can trust, companies that have been validated by third-party organizations like the USDA or the non-GMO Project, that you are familiar with for humane, environmentally friendly and sustainable practices. Once you've done that, feel free to enjoy your single-origin products!
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Coffee image via Shutterstock: Stockcreations