The Higher Administrative Court in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia found algae-sourced calcium (lithothamnium) was not permitted in an organic product under EU Regulation 834/2007 which governs the production and labelling of organic food in the bloc’s 28 member states.
Calcium is frequently added to soy drinks because they typically have much lower content (200 milligrams per litre) than dairy milk (1200 mg/l) offerings, but forms vary and not all soy products are organic.
"The use of the alga as an ingredient in food products designated as organic is authorised and applied for many years," said a spokesperson for Belgium-based soy giant Alpro, which has an organic brand, Provamel, on sale across Europe.
"The European regulation regarding organic products describes principles on the processing of organic food and allows the use of certain ingredients which have not been produced organically, if not exceeding 5% of the agricultural fraction and if positively listed in the regulation.
"Algae, including Lithothamnium calcareum, are on this positive list and are only present in an amount below the 5%. As such the use of Lithothamnium calcareum is allowed in the organically-certified Provamel products."
The court specifically challenged the use the grounded calcium derived from algae skeletons, but Alpro noted the ruling is not yet binding and products can continue as before.
"Alpro is commited to only have legally compliant products on the market and in case the use of Lithothamnium calcareum would not be legally allowed in the future we will act accordingly," the spokesperson added.
Is the sea agricultural?
The EU organic regulation states organic food should be produced with “the restriction of the use of food additives, of non organic ingredients with mainly technological and sensory functions and of micronutrients and processing aids, so that they are used to a minimum extent and only in case of essential technological need or for particular nutritional purposes”.
“The court considered the substance a mineral substance of non-agricultural origin,” noted Bonn-based law firm Kieffer Legal Services.
“The use of these substances is not allowed for the production of organic foods, unless specific regulations allow the use of mineral substances. For soy milk there is not a regulation in place providing the use of calcium.”
Lithothamnium is typically present in such drinks at a level of about 0.5%.
Organic soy brands present on the German market containing the red seaweed-sourced ingredient include Soy Alive, Lima, Soja Fit, Joya and Provamel.
Lithothamium grows at one millimeter per year and has high concentrations of minerals, vitamins, amino acids and in particular calcium and iron.