To justify paying more for certain organic products, consumers say they must be able to recognize and trust the manufacturers, brands and growers as well as the stores where they shop. Even if they don't understand the fine print of organic standards, they do have strong ideas about what the terms natural and organic mean to them -even when it comes to ethnic cuisine.
Consumers in the NFM 2008 consumer research survey see organic products as purer, healthier and better tasting than conventional food and other products. To these consumers, organic means no pesticides, no hormones, no artificial ingredients and animals that are allowed free range. Most (80 percent) believe organic crops can't be treated with conventional pesticides. In the areas of meat and dairy, 74 percent say organic producers can't administer animal hormones to animals. That's followed closely by those who believe no genetically modified or artificial ingredients or antibiotics are permitted in organic products.
Nearly 50 percent of the survey's respondents believe that products labeled with the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal must contain 100 percent organic ingredients; actually, the standard is 95 to 100 percent.
But for some consumers, knowing the details is less important than knowing and trusting that the retailers they patronize and the manufacturers of the brands they buy know the details.
That's key for Barbara Pope of Syracuse, N.Y. "I need to know it's a reputable chain or independent food store, not some little place that God knows where they get their stuff," Pope says. She shops at naturals stores "where you can see how they take care of their produce. Meat and fish have to be labeled organic. And there should be special sections for natural products so they don't get all mixed up together." She says she pays strict attention to labels. "You have to be a smart shopper and know what the labels mean."
Jay Jacobowitz, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based Retail Insights, says core organic shoppers "are using due diligence. They're asking questions. They're going to have their own standards," regardless of what the certified standards are.
Pope wants straight answers from retailers. "The store has to let you know where they get their products from. They have to answer your questions. They can't hem and haw." Though she wishes the price of organic food would come down, she's willing to pay more for organic meat, fish and produce.
That gels with the rest of the survey respondents, who said they would be willing to pay a price premium for meat, fish and seafood; pet food; coffee; fresh produce; and milk, in that order. Farther down on the list was breakfast cereal, baby food, bread and soft drinks.
The allure of mainstream
Although they buy natural and organic products at natural products stores, many consumers still lean toward mainstream brands. More respondents bought Kellogg's cereal, Quaker granola bars and Stouffer's frozen dinners than bought Barbara's cereals, Nature's Path granola bars and Amy's frozen dinners.
When asked whether they would rather buy an organic version of a mainstream brand or a specialty brand more focused on organics, the majority, 57.5 percent, said they would choose either one.
For Jenni Mackey of Mankato, Minn., it's a matter of experience. "I see it on the shelf and the name is familiar," she says. "You just never know if you're going to like a specialty brand as well." Mackey regularly buys organic versions of mainstream-brand spaghetti sauce, cereal and ice cream. To try a specialty brand, she says, she would "need to taste it to see if I liked it."
As more mainstream shoppers begin to choose organic products, they're likely to stick with the brands they know, not specialty organic brands familiar only to longtime organic shoppers, Jacobowitz says. But small retailers don't have the space or the inclination to stock mainstream brands, he says. While small retailers can't compete in size or location, they still can excel in developing personal relationships with their customers, Jacobowitz says.
Lost in translation
Mexican, Chinese, Japanese and Thai foods continue to top the list of consumers' favorite ethnic cuisine, either to prepare at home or eat at a restaurant. Greek and Spanish food are also making inroads. But when respondents were asked to volunteer the type of cuisine they'd be excited about, Italian won by a landslide.
Not just any Italian food, though. It had to "true Italian," according to Erin Marie Dunlap of Seattle. "Not Chef Boyardee noodles with ketchup." For Dunlap, who has visited Italy several times, true Italian cuisine has to be handmade pasta and "food prepared very simply with the freshest ingredients there are, as it is in Italy."
That's not surprising, according to Thomas Tseng, principal and co-founder of Los Angeles-based marketing company New American Dimensions. "It goes hand in hand with several food trends eating seasonally, eating real food' (in Michael Pollan's parlance)," Tseng says in an e-mail. "There's a certain aspect of people's awareness about healthy eating (seasonal, local, fresh, natural) that go hand in hand with [the way] many folks actually eat in Italy."
Also high on the excitement list: Korean cuisine. Tseng points out that this spicier fare is growing beyond the Korean immigrant base and branching out in new restaurants from Los Angeles to New York that "function as new entry points for those with more adventurous palates and those who care about food, such as those surveyed, are likely to be more adventurous in seeking new foods."
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p. 18,20