A healthy share of Americans hold some not-so-healthy views about organic foods.
In a survey of 2,001 Americans commissioned by Vitacost.com, people were asked to name words they associate with organic products. Half of the people surveyed (51%) mentioned organic products are naturally grown and nearly half (48%) mentioned that they’re not altered by chemicals.
However, many people used less complimentary ways to describe organic products, including expensive (38%), overrated (22%) and tasteless (19%).
Theo Mourad, co-founder of Theo’s Plant-Based, a producer of vegetable-based “beet” jerky, partly attributes the negative opinions expressed in the survey to a lack of knowledge among some consumers about the advantages of organic foods.
“We live in a culture where low-quality ‘big food’ — and the ability to mass-produce things for unimaginably low costs — has curated our judgments on what things ought to cost, look and taste like,” Mourad says. “I think that even conscious consumers have been influenced by the availability and genius marketing of the large conventional food companies.”
Despite some unflattering beliefs about organic foods, nearly 94.4 million Americans consumed these foods in 2020, according to Statista, a provider of market data and consumer data. And U.S. sales of organic foods rose roughly 2% from 2020 to 2021, landing at $57.5 billion, the Organic Trade Association reported in 2022.
“Organic’s ability to retain the market footholds gained during 2020 and continue to grow despite unprecedented challenges and uncertainty is a testament to the strength of our industry and our products,” Tom Chapman, the trade association’s executive director and CEO, says in a news release.
Concerns about the price of organic foods
Mourad acknowledges organic foods cost more than conventional foods, as growers and producers must charge more to offset greater expenses. Those higher prices serve as a deterrent for some consumers.
In the Vitacost.com survey, 73% of the people questioned believe money can be a significant barrier to leading a healthy life. And nearly 40% tied the word “expensive” to organic foods. Data published in 2016 by the U.S. Economic Research Service showed retail prices of organic foods were 7% to 82% higher than nonorganic foods.
There is some positive news on the price front, though. The average per-pound price of conventional produce climbed 9.2% in 2021, compared with 7% for organic produce, according to a 2022 report from the Organic Produce Network industry organization and market research company Category Partners.
“I wish we lived in a world where all people could have the same access to high-quality organic food,” Mourad says.
“I’d suggest to folks that don’t believe me to pick out the same variety of, say, an apple from the grocery store — one conventional, one organic — and then an organic one from a local farmers market and do a taste test. I can certainly notice significant differences,” he adds. “If you can afford it, buying organic is a great way to support your tastebuds, personal health and the planet.”
Educating on the benefits of organic foods
Although the Vitacost.com survey reflects a considerable number of doubters, a “huge swath of consumers” fully embrace organic foods as part of their lifestyle, says Stephanie Bledsoe, consulting agronomist for Tractor Beverage Co., which sells organic, non-GMO beverages.
But convincing organic-food naysayers will require more education, she says, as many Americans remain unclear about the meaning of “organic.”
Bledsoe points out that only 18% of Americans questioned for the International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food and Health Survey included “organic” in their definition of healthy food, despite the fact that 42% cited the presence of pesticides in food as a major concern over food safety.
“Making healthier, cleaner choices regarding supplements, foods, personal care items, etc. easily attainable and very affordable is vital. Educating consumers on the benefits of those choices helps dispel some misperceptions that still exist,” says Guy Burgstahler, president of Vitacost.com.
“Learning how nature’s ingredients and those that are synthetic or genetically modified impact wellness is … very important,” Burgstahler adds. “With that knowledge, people can then read labels and compare to make the best decisions for themselves.”
Benefits of organic foods to consider
Bledsoe says consumers may skip the organic aisle at the grocery store, but they might not if they were aware of the benefits of organic foods compared with their conventional counterparts, such as these outlined by the Mayo Clinic, the University of Colorado and The Organic Center:
- Organic produce contains lower levels of pesticide residue.
- Organic produce tends to have higher levels vitamin C, antioxidants and some minerals.
- Organic milk and meat can be richer in nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids.
- Organic foods might contain no antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.
- Organic farming generates fewer greenhouse gases.
- Organic farming promotes humane treatment of animals.
“Choosing to eat organic benefits your body and the planet in a big way,” Bledsoe says.