Organic and “natural” foods and beverages continue to gain appeal, driven in part by more consumers cooking at home and increased interest in health and safety. In an online consumer poll of “likely organic” shoppers conducted last spring by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), 90% of respondents said organic is “more important than ever.”
Organic food sales surpassed $50B in 2019, an increase of 4.6% over the previous year, reports the OTA. And according to market research firm SPINS, preliminary data for 2020 show that weekly sales of organic products actually topped those of non-organic between June 28 and August 9, while overall year-over-year sales of organic products in 2020 exceeded those of 2019. One data point for the week ending August 9 indicates that sales of organic products increased 12.4% year over year compared to 10.7% for non-organic products.
There’s indication that the events of the COVID-19 pandemic could have a lasting impact on what consumers purchase at the grocery store, including organic foods and beverages. The OTA consumer poll asked participants how they anticipate their organic shopping habits to evolve over the coming 3-6 months, and more than half (56%) said the changes they experienced, such as home cooking and more simplified ways of eating, will become lasting habits. This opens up opportunities for food and beverage product developers looking to enter the organic market or expand existing lines.
Another key factor is the expansion of organic options. Such options are available across nearly all food categories, especially those that have experienced high demand. Sales of organic produce — a solid-growth organic category — were up more than 20% in the spring of 2020, according to the OTA. Meanwhile, sales of packaged and frozen organic foods — categories that have seen softer sales growth in the past — had double-digit growth as consumers spent more time preparing meals at home.
Data from SPINS show there are several organic food categories outperforming their non-organic counterparts, namely shelf-stable seasonings, refrigerated tofu, shelf-stable baking mixes and flour, shelf-stable pickles and olives, and refrigerated, ready-to-drink coffee and tea. Even suppliers of organic commodities are reporting strong demand for their products.
“In interviews with a number of organic grain suppliers, all reported strong demand for their products,” notes Ken Roseboro, editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. “One supplier and processor reported generating 90% of the organic sales they forecast for the whole year in March alone. Another reported a 30% increase in business. Several suppliers attribute this to ‘pantry loading’, where consumers stock up on items that have a longer shelf life, such as grains and beans.”
Consumers purchase organic and “natural” foods and beverages for several reasons, including the perception that these foods are healthier, with part of that perception secondary to the desire to avoid synthetic pesticides. While studies show that many consumers consider the two labels as equivalent or near-equivalent, there is no legal definition for “natural.” Organic classification, however, does have to meet strict certification parameters.
Researchers continue to investigate scientifically whether organic foods are healthier and more nutritious, and whether they have significant and measurable effects on human health. “There is some indication that eating organic foods reduces intake of pesticide residues,” says Nancy Farrell, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Yet, other research contradicts this evidence. So, it is a matter of personal choice. Reduced exposure to pesticides may be of value to some children, or those with a compromised immune system.”
Farrell also notes that the nutrient differences between organic and conventional food are relatively small. “Any nutrient differences that do exist still fall within the normal range values. However, in terms of plants, there is some research suggesting that organic foods could contain increased amounts of [beneficial] plant compounds such as phytonutrients. Phytonutrients do not have standardized recommended values for consumption, but are known to improve health through their anti-inflammatory and other benefits.”
A systematic review study conducted by Crystal Smith-Spangler, et alia, and published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that there is little evidence organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods. The majority of the studies (223) in the review focused on the nutrient and contaminant levels of organic and conventional foods, with 17 focused on human health and organic foods.
Conversely, other research has evaluated the differences in levels of bioactive compounds in various organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, including red onions, cauliflower, eggplants, beets, and tomatoes. That research demonstrated that the organic versions of the studied items had higher concentrations of some healthy compounds.
For example, from a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, results suggested that organically grown red onions had higher levels of certain flavonoids and antioxidants than did their conventionally grown counterparts.
A study published in 2012 in the same journal reported that organically grown spinach had higher levels of ascorbic acid and flavonoids than conventionally grown spinach. A 2019 review conducted by Sara Hurtado-Barroso, et alia, and published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, revealed that organically grown food might benefit overall health and decrease the risk of developing chronic diseases, perhaps due to higher levels of such noted bioactive compounds, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, along with lower levels of cadmium and pesticides.
The researchers noted that the health outcomes reported by some studies could also be linked to the lifestyle of organic food consumers. Such consumers tend to follow a healthy dietary pattern of consuming more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and less meat. Additionally, the researchers reported there is no clear association between health-related biomarkers and an organic diet.
“2020 has seen tremendous growth across all organic categories,” says Angela Jagiello, Director of Education and Insights for the OTA. “As enthusiasm for organic food and beverage products continues to increase, ingredient suppliers are launching even more certified organic ingredients to help food manufacturers meet the growing consumer demand.”
Several recently released organic ingredient lines include a range of native starches that bring textural enhancements to food applications, including sauces, dressings, soups, yogurt, frozen and refrigerated ready-meals, meats, bakery, confectionery, and gummies. The organic native waxy starch offers good freeze/thaw stability, high viscosity, and strong binding properties. Organic native tapioca starch and organic native corn starch deliver smooth, short textures when hot, and they form a strong gel after they’ve cooled in a cooked dispersion.
Manufacturers are discovering that many consumers of gluten- free and grain-free products want organic versions. This presents an undeniable opportunity for manufacturers of these items. One gluten-free/grain-free ingredient option is a recently introduced organic cassava flour. Produced through a proprietary milling process, the ingredient provides good crumb structure, moistness, and desirable texture to gluten-free and grain-free bakery products as well as baked and extruded snacks.
New organic functional dairy proteins allow for the formulation of both dairy and nominally non-dairy food and beverage products with an organic positioning. Examples include micellar casein isolates, derived from organic milk without the use of acids. One form can be used to add stability and creaminess to grilling cheeses like Greek halloumi, and for cheese used in cheese sticks, cheese nuggets, and hot-pot soups.
Other such organic proteins have been specifically designed to enhance the texture, stability, and mouthfeel of certain types of yogurt products or protein-fortified ice cream. Another allows for the formulation of organic high-protein sports nutrition and functional food and beverage products.
Meanwhile, more organic versions of colors are debuting, providing food manufacturers opportunities to expand their organic product portfolios. One line of organic colors includes brown hues made by cooking organic fruit or vegetable juice concentrates. Organic onions and apples are two typical sources for these colors. There also are vibrant red and purple hues made from anthocyanins found in organic purple corn, and blue hues derived from organic algae via a water extraction process.
The surge in demand for organic, and by extension, “natural” foods and beverages is expected to continue for many years to come. In many categories, the increase in supply of organic ingredients has brought their cost closer than ever before to parity with their non-organic counterparts.
While organics might not reach the status of the rule rather than the exception, it’s clear that as long as product makers recognize that nothing beats flavor and convenience for success, launching an organic product is close to a sure bet.
Karen Nachay, MS, is a writer and researcher covering food and beverage trends, ingredients, culinary developments, and cutting-edge science. She holds a Master of Science degree in food science and nutrition and has worked as a writer and editor for food science magazines and other media. Nachay also has extensive professional experience in product development labs for multiple ingredient manufacturers. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.