October 2007

Organics in Overdrive — The Explosion of Natural Food Products
By Marie Spano, MS, RD, CISSN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 8 No. 10 P. 66

Organic sales are picking up speed thanks to increased exposure in large chain markets and superstores.

Looking for organic products? Many consumers are heading to Wal-Mart, their neighborhood grocery store, or their local college cafeteria. According to preliminary findings from the Organic Trade Association’s 2007 Manufacturer Survey, US organic food sales grew by 22.1% in 2006, reaching $16.9 billion. This growth is evident by increased shelf space in grocery stores and superstores across the country.

Why are so many people turning toward organic food? Is it truly healthier? The organic vs. conventional food debate has been brewing for years, though the heat has recently increased thanks to more media coverage on the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in food.

Organic Basics
The USDA sets the standards for organic food. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy come from animals not given antibiotics or growth hormones and raised on 100% organic feed while having access to the outdoors. Organic food is produced without the use of most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Prior to a product being labeled organic, a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to ensure all USDA standards are being met. Farmers selling less than $5,000 in organic products are exempt from certification, though they still must follow all organic standards. All companies that handle or process food labeled as organic must also be certified prior to that food hitting store shelves.1

Organic does not mean that all products come from small, local farms. In fact, with the rise in organic popularity, many large corporations have organic lines that may travel long distances in gas-guzzling trucks before reaching local shelves.

Is Organic Healthier and Safer?
The USDA does not make any claims regarding the safety or nutritional value of organic food compared with conventionally grown food. Yet, proponents on both sides have debated these issues for years. A recent report from the British Nutrition Foundation indicated that organic food is not more nutritious than conventionally produced food.

A few caveats to this general rule of thumb: Organic potatoes are richer sources of vitamin C than conventionally grown potatoes, and one half of the studies examined in this review found higher levels of vitamin C in organically produced vegetables while no studies showed lower levels of vitamin C in organic vegetables. Some studies examined in this review also showed slightly higher nutrient levels of alpha-linolenic acid, conjugated linoleic acid, alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene, and/or a higher proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids to monounsaturated fatty acids in the organically produced dairy. However, organic or not, dairy products are not a great source of any of these nutrients.

The author of this study concluded that more research needs to be done, though nutrition isn’t typically the reason people consume organic products. Instead, consumers are more likely to choose organic for environmental reasons and to minimize pesticide consumption.2

Contrary to the aforementioned study, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that dried tomato samples over a 10-year period showed organically produced tomatoes contained significantly more of the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol than traditional tomatoes.3 Again, additional research likely needs to be conducted to settle this debate.

Although the belief is that organic foods contain fewer chemicals than conventionally produced foods, it is unclear how significant this difference is concerning human health. The government sets standards for pesticide residues in conventionally grown food as a measure to ensure safety for humans. However, the potential effects of long-term exposure to pesticides and herbicides, combined with the complexities of genetics and exposure to other chemicals in the environment, remain unclear.

Gaining Ground
Growth in the organic market can be attributed to numerous factors—from consumer fear of hormones and antibiotics to enticing new product launches and increased consumer accessibility.

Organic product sales are growing overall, with sales of organic beverages through food, drug, mass merchandisers, and the natural supermarket channel fueling this growth. In 2006, organic beverage sales topped $1.3 billion, according to Mintel International. This increase is largely due to the increase in organic dairy sales. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic dairy products in the United States grew 24% from 2004 to 2005 for a total of $2.14 billion in 2005. A survey conducted by Mintel revealed that this growth is largely attributed to fears of bovine growth hormone and antibiotics, though some chose organic milk because they preferred the taste.

While organic dairy may seem safer, other organic beverages, such as juices, are not pasteurized and contain no preservatives, thereby possibly increasing the risk of foodborne illness in such products.

New Products
The term organic is popping up on a variety of new products. New organic beverages include an increased number of carbonated beverages (including the first certified glycemic index-tested organic carbonated beverage), unsweetened almond beverages, and powdered drink mixes. Fairly new organic products for children include docosahexaenoic acid-fortified organic milk, organic nutrition bars marketed with kid-friendly packages, and fortified powdered nutrition drinks intended for mixing with milk.

Organics have captured the attention of big grocery chains and superstores, making the products more accessible and noticeable to the everyday consumer. In 2006, Wal-Mart indicated it would double its shelf space devoted to organic products and include a variety of such products, including milk, produce, and packaged foods. Other stores responded to this by also increasing shelf space and obtaining a government-backed seal indicating they are certified organic retailers. The seal designates how these retailers handle organic foods. For instance, organic fruits and vegetables cannot be handled alongside conventionally grown vegetables (eg, washed with them, stacked on top of them), and organic meats cannot be sliced on the same slicer as conventional meats.

In addition to increased shelf space, some grocery chains, such as Winn-Dixie, Publix, Kroger, and Safeway, sell their own organic brand of dairy and soy products, which typically costs less than name brands. With increased competition, it makes sense for superstores and grocery stores to make themselves the “one stop shop” for their consumers.

College cafeterias are also making way for organic foods. The University of California, Berkeley has an organic salad bar; Yale has an organic-only cafeteria with preference given to locally grown and produced organics; Bates College, the College of the Atlantic, Middlebury College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and American University are just a few schools offering some organic foods.

What will organic look like in years to come? Growth in organic sales and the number of organic products will be dependent on numerous factors, including the safety of our food supply; scientific research exposing potential health effects of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and hormones in our food; competition from “natural” products and those labeled as “bovine growth hormone and antibiotic-free”; clear government regulations upholding organic standards; and continually increasing availability of organic products in mainstream stores.

— Marie Spano, MS, RD, CISSN, is an exercise physiologist; vice president of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN); spokesperson for the Tea Council of the USA and the ISSN; and a freelance writer, consultant, and speaker in the nutrition, fitness, and health industries.


1. The National Organic Program. Organic food standards and labels: The facts. Updated January 2007. Available here.

2. Williamson CS. Is organic food better for our health? Nutrition Bulletin. 2007;32(2):104-108.

3. Mitchell AE, Hong YJ, Koh E, et al. Ten-year comparison of the influence of organic and conventional crop management practices on the content of flavonoids in tomatoes. J Agric Food Chem. 2007;55(15):6154-6159.

What Is Organic?
Single ingredient foods such as fruits and vegetables should be labeled as 100% organic and carry a small USDA seal. Multi-ingredient foods produced according to USDA organic standards and containing at least 95% organically produced ingredients can carry the USDA organic seal. The following terms may also appear on the food label:

• 100% organic — products containing all organic ingredients;

• Organic — products containing at least 95% organic ingredients*; and

• Made with organic ingredients — products containing at least 70% organic ingredients.

Products with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot make any claims but can list organically produced ingredients on the package side panel.

* On June 22, the USDA gave interim approval to a proposal allowing 38 nonorganic ingredients to be used in foods that contain 95% organic ingredients or less. Included in this list are 19 food colorings, two starches, intestinal casings for hot dogs, fish oil, chipotle chili peppers, celery powder, chia, dill weed oil, Turkish bay leaves, Wakame seaweed, frozen lemongrass, frozen galangal, hops for beer, gelatin, oligofructose-enriched inulin, whey protein concentrate, gelatin, unbleached orange shellac, unmodified rice starch, sweet potato starch, konjac flour, and fructooligosaccharides. Everything on the list does not have an organic alternative that is commercially available. Products that are 100% organic cannot include such ingredients.

Though this proposal has caused an uproar among many individuals, nonorganic ingredients have been used in the past in organic products when such ingredients were not available organically in the quality and quantity needed. In fact, several manufacturers have petitioned the FDA that they rely on such nonorganic ingredients in small quantities.

— MS

How to Go Organic.com:

The National Organic Program:

Organic Farming Research Foundation:

Organic Trade Association: