- The debate between conventional (non-organic) and organic/regenerative food & consumer packaged products continues. Many scientists find that conventional crops and packaged goods are just as nutritious as their organic counterparts.
- When shopping for foods and beverages, 29 percent buy those labeled “organic,” up from 25 percent in 2017. The increase is even more significant when people eat out: 20 percent said they eat at restaurants with foods and beverages advertised as organic compared to 14 percent last year. Consumer trends definitely have an impact on the organic and conventional packaged goods industry.
You’re in the grocery. In front of you are two mangos, side-by-side.
They look similar, they smell similar, they even feel similar.
But one of the fruits is three times the cost of the other – because it’s organic. This mango is the creme de la creme, the cream of the crop, it’s the fruit that’s on top.
But why is this? Why is organic so much more, and why is it valued so highly?
Today, we wanted to discuss whether or not organic products are worth the hype, and how this relates to consumer desires and trends. We’ll provide info from a variety of sources and approach this as non-empirically as possible.
Personally, we at Journey Foods are proponents of the “organic movement” – which is why we’ll try to keep our biases off the table when discussing this.
Organic vs. Conventional
For the sake of brevity, let’s segment foods into two categories:
Organic & Conventional
What are the differences and standards?
[Note: we will also briefly mention the topic of regenerative foods]
Here’s what the USDA says about organic produce:
“Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment” 
The USDA states that “Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible” .
There are also other organic regulations related to claims concerning artificial colorings, taste, GMOs and preservatives.
In a nutshell, organic means “restricted modification by human means.” It doesn’t mean “100% natural with no human intervention.”
Conventional produce is different from organic produce in the sense that it relies more on human intervention.
Dr. Tamika Sims writes that “both organic and conventional farming use pesticides to produce food” .
She then goes on to explain that “based on scientific evidence, […the EPA, FDA, USDA] have deemed the use of pesticides to be safe and determined that the residues that remain on produce, if any, do not cause adverse health effects” .
The statement above is what is so hotly debated in the world of food. You’ll find blogs on blogs on blogs on the internet debating, citing studies, and discussing this topic.
So regenerative food ties in with “organic” foods in some respects.
Here’s what Planted Cuisine states about regenerative foods:
“The idea of a regenerative food system -and often more discussed- a regenerative approach to agriculture is a idea that has been around for nearly a hundred years. Unlike sustainability, which literally means, to sustain; a regenerative approach is to create a system that aims to create a net-positive impact on a continual basis.”
Planted Cuisine mentions how a regenerative food system works to:
- Restore the nutrients of the land, making sure soil is healthy for the next round of crops.
- Utilize local environment resources instead of relying on transported, factory made resources.
- Be a way to engage in “responsible composting, reusing, recycling, donation or repurposing of all products and materials used in the production process.”
The Organic vs Conventional Food Debate
Before we jump into consumer trends, let’s briefly take a look at the current debate concerning organic and conventional.
The goal of this blog isn’t to convince anyone or defend organic/conventional foods and consumer packaged goods. We are simply taking a step back and looking at the general macrocosm of this part of the food industry. Below we’ll briefly cover the scope of what experts in the industry are saying.
Arguments Leaning Toward Organic
Mayoclinic briefly talks about organic and conventional foods mentioning some of the potential organic health benefits :
- More nutrients, omega-3 acids, less toxicity, and less pesticide residue.
And an article in Harvard Health Publishing cites a study done by Stanford investigating organic health claims.
In the study, “the researchers discovered very little difference in nutritional content, aside from slightly higher phosphorous levels in many organic foods, and a higher omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk and chicken” .
The article talks about how they found that “organic produce did have the slight edge in food safety, with 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods.”
And even though the Stanford study found that pesticide levels in organic and non-organic foods were within allowable limits, Dr. Michelle Hauser (a certified chef, nutrition educator, and clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School) states that “just because these foods aren’t going over what they call an ‘acceptable limit’ doesn’t mean they’re safe for everyone” .
Arguments Leaning Toward Conventional
But as mentioned earlier, Dr. Tamika Sims from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) has other, more potent thoughts concerning the organic vs. conventional debate.
Dr. Sims argues that organic produce does not have a nutritional advantage over conventional produce – citing studies like this one.
She states this later in her article:
“While many Americans don’t consume the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables in the first place, it is a public health disservice to encourage people to eat only organic produce” .
And why would eating only organic foods be a disservice?
Well – remember the two mangos at the beginning of this blog? Not everyone can afford the fancy, organic mango – or local-made organic kombucha. Quite frankly, many folks here in the United States are a bit more concerned about affording basic, conventional foods.
This is why looking at consumer trends is vital.
If folks are worried they can’t afford organic produce and packaged goods, that could be a problem. Isn’t it important that people are educated on the nutritional benefits of foods they can’t afford?
In Dr. Tamika Sims’ article referenced above, she mentioned a study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
That study made a very interesting claim.
The researchers found that “despite limited access, organic is an important factor in some consumers’ understanding of healthy food. Consumers’ perceptions of organic can swamp or compete with other messages about healthy eating” .
Consumer perceptions rock the food industry to its core. Consumer is King so they say.
And the power of consumer perception also shows in 2018 Food & Health Survey done by the IFIC.
Food Insight, who posted the Survey, had this to say about the findings:
“When shopping for foods and beverages, 29 percent buy those labeled “organic,” up from 25 percent in 2017. The increase is even more significant when people eat out: 20 percent said they eat at restaurants with foods and beverages advertised as organic compared to 14 percent last year” .
So it’s clear that perceptions have an impact on purchasing decisions. Seeing “organic” on a label is quite effective at influencing consumers.
But the reasons for buying organic products may be more diverse than one would expect. Health and nutrition is not the only reason for buying organic. More and more consumers are concerned about environmental sustainability.
The chart above is from the IFIC’s 2019 Health Survey .
This information is significant for a few reasons.
There’s still an argument to be made for buying organic – even if conventional and organic packaged goods hold the same nutritional value.
The Rodale Institute quoted the USDA saying:
“Organic production is not simply the avoidance of conventional chemical inputs, nor is it the substitution of natural inputs for synthetic ones. Organic farmers apply techniques first used thousands of years ago, such as crop rotations and the use of composted animal manures and green manure crops, in ways that are economically sustainable in today’s world. In organic production, overall system health is emphasized, and the interaction of management practices is the primary concern. Organic producers implement a wide range of strategies to develop and maintain biological diversity and replenish soil fertility” .
This is reason enough for many earth-loving consumers to choose organic.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
The issue of food access is one of the main reasons Journey Foods does what it does. We assist folks in optimizing R&D so that they can save money, provide organic, regenerative, and conventional products to consumers who need it, and get a 30,000 foot view of their supply chain.
It’s a sad state of affairs when there is enough food in the world to feed the hungry… yet hungry people still exist. We hope to work with the world to change this.
There are many reasons to buy organic – and many reasons not to. The important thing is to educate the average consumer about health. If people are hurting their wallets buying organic foods, that’s a problem.
The organic vs conventional foods debate will go on for years to come… and probably long after we are gone!
What do you think? Are you pro-conventional? Or pro-organic? What do you think the industry could do better to expand food access and educate consumers?
We’d love to hear your comments 🙂