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Top 5 misconceptions of organic

Organic food sales may have grown 5.1 percent last year, according to Nutrition Business Journal, but there are still misconceptions out there that are preventing the category from going completely mainstream. Address these concerns head on by understanding where they come from and what people are saying.

1. Myth: Organic foods cause obesity
While new research shows that organic foods may contain more nutrients than conventional foods, some consumers are extrapolating that to mean that anything labeled organic means “healthy” and that organic cookies—with just as much sugar in them as conventional cookies—are better for you. In the June issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making, psychologists at the University of Michigan took this one step further by concluding that because the organic label confused 114 students in a particular study, more people are likely to become obese as a result of eating more organic treats.

Obviously, this is not the case. The Organic Trade Association responded to the study, saying there is no link between organics and obesity; in fact, most organics shoppers buy low-calorie produce.

“Sales of organic fruits and vegetables, which represent 38 percent of total organic food sales, reached nearly $9.5 billion in sales in 2009, up 11.4 percent from 2008 sales,” the OTA responded. “Most notably, organic fruits and vegetables now represent 11.4 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales.”

2. Myth: Organic labels are just marketing tools
The National Organic Program is housed within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service department, so the organic label must just be some government label without meaning, right? Wrong. The AMS is part of the Marketing and Regulatory Programs department at the USDA, which is actively setting standards on treatment of animals, product claims, inspection processes and certifications.

Not only does the label mean something, it signifies a long and arduous process producers, growers, ranchers and retailers go through to make sure their products are free from irradiation, genetically modified organisms, pesticides and a host of nonsynthetic substances that have been monitored and updated regularly since the USDA’s organic program’s final rule went into effect in 2002.

3. Myth: Organic foods are unsafe
As retailers, you know you need to wash your organic oranges and shine up your apples a bit more to make them more competitive visually with conventional produce. Organic food is free of hormones, chemical waxes and sanitizers, which are used to make a product look better and thus safer to the consumer.

In a May 2009 issue of Food In Canada, attorney Ronald Doering spoke about organic foods being a “culprit in a litany of food-safety crises (spinach, peanuts, etc.),” according to the OTA. In response, Matthew Holmes, managing director for the OTA in Canada, clarified organics’ avoidance of cross contamination (a typical cause of health issues in the food system), and the fact that there have been no confirmed reports of anyone getting sick from consuming an organic product.

“Indeed, the premise of food safety and organic are one and the same: identity preservation, traceability and accountability,” Holmes wrote.

4. Myth: Organic foods cost more
In a January two-part series on, a report on organics claimed “that the only certain thing about organic foods is that they cost more,” the OTA reported. Even The Organic View, a website to inform consumers about organics, says it hears from people that “organic food costs more. It is for rich people that hate themselves.” While it may be true that years ago organic products were extremely expensive, the organic supply chain has become more robust, driving down the cost of organic foods to make them more competitive with conventional.

“In reality, it is possible to buy organic foods in season in certain markets at comparable prices to nonorganic products. The point ignored is the true cost of the food we eat,” says Barbara Haumann, senior writer/editor for the OTA.

5. Myth: Natural is better than organic
To consumers who don’t understand the NOP label or what “organic” means, it is easy to think that natural and organic products are either or the same, or that natural is more authentic. While tastes may be similar between, say, organic and natural apples, the way those apples were grown and processed is different. While any product labeled organic must conform to USDA standards, there are no such standards for “natural.”

In a survey done by Delicious Living magazine and iVillage, respondents understood the “value proposition of organic, but they think natural is more nutritious, tastes better and is more low calorie. With consumers thinking natural tastes better, [the natural market] is gaining ground,” says Nancy Coulter-Parker, director of retail at New Hope Natural Media.

To learn more about combating rumors around organics and what the category can expect in 2011, stay tuned for the NFM Organics Guide in September.

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