Finnish manufacturer supplies ten countries with organic starch
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Red fruit jelly, sauces and soups are often thickened with starch made from potatoes, but you also find it in blancmange, bread, biscuits, cakes and meat products, where it is used as a practical liquid binding agent. Starch derived from potatoes is a common ingredient too in ready and instant meals, as well as in sweets. Potato starch from organic agriculture, that is used by the organic sector, frequently comes from Finland. Organic-Market.Info visited an agricultural producer and the processing firm Finnamyl.
(Picture: A visitor and Finnamyl employees in front of drying units for potato starch)
“Processing potatoes to starch takes two hours,” explains Ms Pirjo Lehtonen, the sales manager of the potato starch manufacturer Finnamyl. In Kokemäki, about 150 km to the north-west of Helsinki, on average 24,000 t of potato starch are produced every year from around 100,000 t of potatoes. 400 t of this total – 1.66 % - are organic, and the factory concentrates on organic production for 2-3 days during the autumn campaign. To produce this volume, it takes about 2,000 t or 200 trailers full of organic potatoes (picture) that are supplied by contract farmers in the region. (Picture: Most of the potatoes are harvested in September)
One of the eight suppliers of organic potatoes – located in a radius up to 250 km – is the prison Satakunnan vankila, where around 100 inmates are incarcerated. They are given various activities, and one of them is cultivating the institution’s own land. They farm 215 ha organically, of which 15 ha are devoted to potatoes. They are only 14 km from the potato starch factory - just round the corner you might say. The man responsible for agriculture at the prison is Pertti Saari, who has been working there for 33 years. In the mid 1980s he sent supplies to Kokemäki, and he was able to persuade Finnamyl to include organic in its production programme. Incidentally, three other prisons in Finland offer their inmates the same opportunity to work in organic agriculture. (Picture on right: The prison’s potato fields).
9 % of agricultural land in Finland – 205,000 ha - is farmed organically. Growth in 2012 was an astonishing 11 %. In Finland, an average organic farm has 48 ha. For starch production, they use special varieties of potato like Kardal, Kuras or Posmo, that have an especially high starch content of 19 % (in organic agriculture 16 %). Firm, waxy varieties (salad varieties) that we generally buy have a starch content of 10 – 12 %, and predominantly waxy varieties 12 – 14 %. The eight organic producers of potatoes for edible starch production cultivate a total of 170 ha. (Picture on left: The idyllic location of the prison Satakunnan vankila)
The potato starch factory (picture) was built in 1942, and the company Finnamyl took over the facility in 1999. It employs 18 people fulltime, and during the processing campaign, from the middle of August to the middle of November, it takes on a further dozen workers. Since 2010, when there was a management buyout, the Finnish firm – a limited liability company – has belonged to the top executives and contract farmers. “Since the takeover from BASF, 350 farmers have acquired a majority share in the firm,” explains managing director Mr Ossi Paakki. A total of 208 farmers supply Finnamyl, and each farms on average 15 ha. Minority owners of Finnamyl are the firms Raisioagro and Lyckeby Culinar. The latter is a food manufacturer that operates another potato starch factory, including organic production, via its subsidiary Aloja in Latvia. Over half of Finnamyl’s non-organic production is used not in the food sector but as industrial starch in paper production. (Picture: View of the Finnamyl site)
A fifth of a potato is usable starch. The rest is potato pulp and juice. The pulp, that like silage is acidic and keeps well therefore, can be fed to cows and pigs. The juice is used as a natural fertilizer on the fields. Whereas the conventional starch is packed in 10 kg, 25 kg and 750 kg sacks, in the case of organic starch the units are only 25 kg, which are sold to around a dozen companies that package the potato starch flour in consumer packs or supply processors in the food industry. “One of our first customers was the firm Bauck in Germany,” recounts Erkki Pöytäniemi, Finnamyl’s export manager for organic starch. “They package the starch in 500 g packs and sell them via wholefood wholesalers to organic supermarkets and specialist wholefood stores.” The Dutch company DO-IT distributes Finnamyl’s organic potato starch to industry in Holland and elsewhere. Finnamyl has been selling organic starch since as far back as 1992. (Picture on left: Cleaning drum for potatoes)
The characteristics of potato starch, sometimes called potato flour: the oval starch granules, of which there are several in the cells of the tubers, range from 5 to 100 micrometres in size. They are two to three times bigger than the granules of starch in grain, maize and tapioca. Between the starch granules is the potato juice, all enclosed in the cell walls.
In principle, processing is simple and follows the same process house-wives have used for hundreds of years: after the potatoes have been thoroughly washed, they are grated. The resulting mash is passed through a sieve, and this process squeezes out the liquid containing the starch and leaves the pulp. The next stage is separating the juice and the starch with a hydro-cyclone separator. The potato starch is washed and dried. The whole process involves only mechanical treatment and heating. An online lexicon tells us that potato starch also contains calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium and phosphorus. However - compared to the other major starches - potato starch is the cleanest, containing practically no fats or protein which means that as an ingredient it gives no off-flavor or colour to the final product. (Picture above: Potato juice and starch going into a settling basin)
In contrast to maize and grain starch, that have an opaque appearance and grainy taste, potato starch is transparent and tasteless. “In its ability to bind water, potato starch is superior to all other starches,” explains Erkki Pöytäniemi. This makes it a useful ingredient in, for example, red berry jelly. Potato starch is the best water binding choice for processed meat products - and even vegetarian ready meals. Protein releases water when heated and potato starch binds water at the same rate - it is a perfect match. Moreover, it’s taste-neutral and not like other varieties of starch that have their own particular taste.
Well-cooked potato starch has very high viscosity, which again plays a part in other products. As a cold-swelling starch, that can be used in cold desserts, it has been heated previously by the manufacturer. Other application areas are as an anticaking agent, filler (e.g. spice blends) or gluing agent. Organic potato starch offers many possibilities to food technologists to avoid additives in food. At Finnamyl in 2014, an environmentally friendly combined woodchip-driven block heat and power unit will take over the provision of heat for the drying processes and other heating requirements. (Picture on left: The organic potato fields belonging to the prison are on the edge of a bird-watching site at a natural conservation area)
Contact: Erkki Pöytäniemi,
Organic Food Finland, Espoo near Helsinki