Is Organic Food Healthier? Or Just Another Aspirational Product?

Is organic food better for you? Is it safer than regular produce? And if it really is safer, is that margin of safety significant?

Let's say you answered yes to each of these questions. Now, how much more are you willing to pay for those incremental feelings of health and safety? In other words, what is organic food really worth to you? Twenty percent more? Fifty percent more? Would you pay double... or even triple?

Don't worry, I'm not trying to convince you to buy--or stop buying--organic foods. My purpose is different: I want to get readers to think about organic food from the perspective of those selling it to us.

To our grocery stores, organic food is just another product segment, just like boxed cereal, gift cards and gourmet cheeses. And your grocery store stocks it for two reasons: because customers want it, and because it's profitable.

Correction: it's extremely profitable. In fact, organic foods are one of the most profitable product segments in your entire grocery store.

Here's another way to look at organic foods. Think of it like a brand: an aspirational brand that taps into many of our most powerful feelings about health, safety--even guilt. After all, you'd never buy pesticide-laden carrots just to save a little money, would you? Of course not. And clearly you'd never feed your family anything but the safest, healthiest foods.

Consumers want to feel good about the purchases they make, and we will gladly pay a premium in order to do so. And it's beyond obvious to say that when companies succeed in associating their products with our deepest feelings of guilt, fear, happiness, success or well-being, it's child's play for them to convince us to pay more.

Once again, my goal is to get you to see this from the perspective of the food industry. To them, organic food is just another aspirational product category--one that coincidentally happens to have well above average profit margins.

So, let's go back to the question I asked above: How much extra are you willing to pay for food that makes you feel safer and healthier?

If you truly can see this product category from the perspective of the people selling it to you, it shouldn't surprise you in the least that whatever price premium you're willing to pay--thirty percent, triple or ten times as much--they're going to try and charge it to you. The higher the better.

One final thought. Are you an educated and informed reader who can quickly dig up several articles and studies defending the value and importance of organic foods? Are you itching to leave a comment below sharing links to those studies, so you can explain how sadly misinformed I am to question the incremental value of organic food?

You're doing their branding for them. For free.

If I were a profit-maximizing food retailer, and if I wanted to introduce a premium-priced, aspirational product category, I'd surely try to find one that I wouldn't have to work very hard to sell. I'd look for one that consumers would convince themselves they needed. And needless to say, I'd charge as much as I could for it.

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Cagey (Kelli Oliver George) said...

I have long felt that some organic products are such a marketing scam. Particularly, in the "inner" aisles that contain the highly processed items. Organic cereal? Really? Organic pasta? EYEROLL.

I keep my organic purchases to those items that we are eating raw, straight from the counter. For example, my kids go through a metric ton of apples and as such, I will pay the premium on apples and not think twice. Conversely, if I am using celery for cooking, I will NOT pay the premium because 1) I am cooking it down to such an extent that I have probably lost all the "good" that comes from organic anyway and 2) I won't notice the difference in flavor. Carrots? OMG, the taste difference is easily discernible and therefore, I will gladly pay for organic carrots - whether I am cooking them or eating them raw.

However, I do think organic overall has turned into another marketing scam for the grocery store. :-/

Jen Blacker said...

After long thought I joined a local service (South Mountain Veggies) that delivers local and organic fruits and veggies. I have poo pooed the whole organic thing, but buying local is a whole different animal. The corn I had two weeks ago from a farm here in my state (MD) was amazing. It reminded me of the corn I got back home from roadside stands in Ohio. The Gala apples were so sweet and juicy. Hell my 3 year old grabbed a cucumber and just started biting into it proclaiming it was awesome.

Getting local straight from the source is a great idea and good for your budget, organic just really depends. That word is thrown around so much it's almost meaningless. I would love to grow my own but I only rent and can't do it yet. So for now I buy local, and boy does it taste good!

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on why at certain times for certain produce items I can only get organic? I regularly request to purchase the conventional version.

Caveat: I have never done a side by side taste test, but I also have not been able to tell that the organic produce that I purchased (the only option miind you) tasted any better...

Yeah caveat 2, I am only interested in taste - not "more or less nutrients/pesticides." Though I am becoming wary of GMO's & would prefer an heirloom variety of produce if it were offered.

Joanne said...

Although I definitely buy a LOT of organic produce, I tend to go for local over organic. In NYC, though, the two tend to go hand in hand and if an item is labeled as local or sold in a farmer's market, it tends to be organic as well. There are some items that, even if not local, I do tend to buy organic as well...generally the dirty dozen because I'd rather not ingest any pesticides. Everything else, I'm happy to purchase inorganically.

chacha1 said...

I subscribe to a delivery service ... a box of organic produce every other week. It costs $31.50 for a carton that generally provides four to five side dishes or main dishes, depending on what's included.

Getting those boxes has tripled our produce consumption at home, not because it's all organic but because of the convenience.

That said, I probably wouldn't have subscribed to a service that *wasn't* organic because the convenience premium on conventional produce wouldn't have been worth it. The convenience premium on the organic boxes doesn't add much to the cost I'd pay going out to shop for myself.

I buy the cleanest meat I can, but I don't often pay the premium for organic or grass-fed beef, which is twice as expensive as conventional. DH is more likely to pick up the grass-fed steaks at the hippie grocery.

I do feel that organic food is healthier just by virtue of not having antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides in it.

Anonymous said...

Are organics an aspirational product? Absolutely.
Is it "healthier"? Maybe, depending on how you define healthier.

In terms of what they contain, organic apples and regular apples are made of the same nutrients. Being organic won't add anything new to the mix.

In terms of what they don't contain, organics in theory should be free of added chemicals. If you worry about being exposed to these, then they may give you some value added. A lot depends on your level of risk tolerance (in some ways perhaps this is not unlike financial planning)and whether you trust current guidelines on what safe levels of various compounds are. To my mind the idea that gets lost in the discussion is that not all chemicals are equally harmful, and that avoiding all of them is probably over-reacting. At the same point there are some things that I would not want in my food at any level.
In the case of an apple, my "gut" feeling is that its waxy skin is pretty effective at keeping added chemicals on the outside where a quick wash can easily remove them. That is based on an assumption that most spray-on chemicals used in agriculture are water-soluble and therefore will not cross that waxy barrier readily.

That being said, I don't think that you can answer the question in a one size fits all answer. For each food and chemical pair, the difficulty of washing or route of possible uptake may be different.
Its not feasible to study every single product in your diet, but to achieve an effective balance between cost and health, I think a good starting point would be to focus on a few of the key staples in their diets to make an informed choice about whether an organic source of that item represents a worthwhile investment or not.

Jenn said...

I am willing to pay for certain organic foods, precisely because I don't feel that "margin of safety" has been sufficiently defined in the scientific literature for several compounds. Even when I was a poor grad student, in order to afford certain organic goods I totally reworked my eating habits. Since I am willing to completely change my entire diet style to afford it, I'm guessing my threshold for price is pretty high. Until I see peer-reviewed studies exonerating enough for those compounds (or their transformation products) that I choose to avoid, I am likely to be a very willing organic customer even when highly priced.