Organic Food Not Understood By Consumers

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By J.P. Kelsey

Over the past decade, organic foods have become quite popular and a movement for things like less pesticides and more efficient farming have been at the forefront of many debates. Most people that have bought anything organic are used to seeing the green and white “USDA Organic” seal somewhere on the product, but what does that really mean? It turns out, many people don’t really seem to know. These concerned, but confused consumers have yet to slow down their purchasing of organic products, however.

A 2014 study by BFG, a marketing/consulting firm, surveyed 300 shoppers that consume organic goods and found the vast majority (70%) didn’t feel knowledgable enough to say what organic means. “What I think we’re seeing in grocery stores is that consumers are ultimately idealists. They desire honesty. They want to believe,” BFG president Kevin Meany told Fast Company. “ They trust the label, and they’re willing to pay more based on that for something like ‘all-natural’ even though they’re not totally sure what it means.” Even though the sample size was small, the phenomenon of shoppers consuming “organic” foods and not knowing exactly what that means suggests that this is may be more than anecdotal evidence. Sure, not everyone can be an expert on agriculture and farming practices, but trusting food companies based on a label can be a slippery slope. This is mainly because food companies see that the organic/natural food industry is growing and that proper marketing can be beneficial, even if it’s slightly misleading.

The National Organic Program (NOP), the federal regulatory agency established in order to create guidelines for labeling foods as “organic,” has defined the term as such: “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” This is just a jumping off point and a blanket definition. The actual guidelines are much more dense, bordering on convoluted. This can be good thing just as much as a bad thing. Since 2000, when the NOP finalized its requirements for labeling foods organic, the industry has quadrupled its sales.

When the program first started and foods began carrying the familiar “USDA Organic” seal, around $7.8 billion was centered around the organic food industry. As of 2012, though, that number has grown to $28 billion and is expected to keep growing. With this exponential growth, more and more companies want to make their products look healthier, which can also increase the price tag for no apparent reason. Too, the term organic, even when it is used in the bona fide sense, can get lost in the mix of other labeling. Things like “all natural,” “no sugar added,” “no preservatives,” and other popular things to put on food labels can be confusing to the consumer. Not all buyers of these products are that gullible, however, the same BFG study indicated. About 75 percent of those they surveyed thought the term “organic” has become more of a marketing tool than anything else and 63 percent thought the same of the term “all natural.”

Most people, however, still think organic is “healthier.” This may or may not be the case as some research has indicated no greater nutritional value in organic foods. This “no greater benefit” of organic foods didn’t really look at the longitudinal effects of exposure to pesticides and the like, though. It mostly looked at the vitamin/mineral content of organic/ non-organic foods and their bioavailability. Even with studies like this, organic and natural foods are more popular than ever and, overall, the increased consumption of these foods can be a good thing. Yes, things can get messy when you look at how heavily agriculture, advertising, and corporate interest are tied, but consumers are becoming more savvy and expect healthier options. Many consumers may not know the fine details of what makes something organic, but they are aware that consuming pesticide drenched food grown in overarmed land from genetically modified seeds may not be the best place for current agricultural practices to stay.