The move toward organic foods, beverages and other goods appears to continue on a steady course with no signs of abating. According to the Hartman Group’s “Organics and Natural 2014 Report,” nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the general population reports at least occasional consumption of organic foods and beverages, with 9 percent reporting daily use.
Interestingly, this trend appears to favor youth. A full 86 percent of millennials (ages 18 to 35) report at least occasional use of organics, and 12 percent report daily consumption. This falls to 63 percent and 7 percent respectively for boomers (age 50 and up).
If there ever was a time when the organic movement was considered a passing fad, especially one that favors youth, that time has long passed. With the exception of only a year here and there, the sale of organic products has experienced annual double-digit growth for a generation now.
In an annual state-of-the-industry paper published in May of this year, the Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) reported that U.S. sales of organic products reached $35.1 billion in 2013, an 11.5 percent rise over the previous year’s $31.5 billion figure. This figure also outpaced the previous five years of growth. The OTA survey projects growth rates over the next two years will meet or even exceed this progression toward an organic world. About 90 percent of the organic products market is for foods, and growth in that segment outpaced the percentage of growth of conventionally grown foods.
“The growing interest in organic foods is not just for fruits and vegetables,” says Laura Batcha, executive director and CEO of OTA. “There is an even greater interest in organic ingredients for the production of processed foods. Americans eat a large percentage of their food as processed goods. They want to know that the ingredients are safe, nutritious and free from unwanted additives.
Better than ever
Bolstering the continued growth of organic products, especially beverages, are recent reports that support the contention by organic growers — and the presumption by many consumers — that organic foods are better than conventional products when it comes to health. But until recently, this presumption had little scientific backing to support it.
An article published just last month in the British Journal of Nutrition reported the results of a meta-analysis of data from 343 peer-reviewed studies comparing organically grown versus conventionally grown foods. This meta-analysis revealed a significantly greater concentration of phytochemicals in the organic foods and a greater concentration of pesticide residues and the toxic metal cadmium in conventionally grown foods.
The beneficial phytochemicals included: phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols, and anthocyanins. All are powerful, natural antioxidants, most of which are linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers. Several recent analyses had supported the long-held convention that there are no significant differences between organically grown and conventionally grown products. However, many of these studies looked at more basic nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals.
“The meta-analysis from the British Journal of nutrition considered not only more studies, but more recent studies, most of which were published within the last five years,” noted Jessica Shade, director of science programs for the Organic Center, a non-profit organization for scientific research on organics and organic farming, based in Washington D.C.
The increased concentration of phytochemicals seems like a logical result of organic farming practices, which utilize a combination of manure and composts to nourish the soil, along with legume crops in rotation to increase nitrogen content. In other words, more nutrition in, more nutrition out. However, the reason for the increased concentration of beneficial phytochemicals might not be as simple as that.
“There are two hypotheses to explain the increased levels of phytochemicals,” explained Shade. “The first is called the 'Oxidative Stress Hypothesis.' When a plant is stressed — such as wounding, water stress and exposure to pets — it creates protective chemicals in response. Conventionally grown plants that lead more ‘sheltered’ lives are somewhat protected from stress by pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, they have less need to spend energy for production of protective chemicals.”
Other evidence favors the “Growth Differentiation Hypothesis.” This hypothesis is based on how plants spend their limited resources. When supplied with high-nitrogen fertilizers, conventionally grown plants spend more energy on growth and less energy on so-called secondary metabolites such as antioxidants. In other words, organically grown plants could benefit from the mid-level nutrient supplementation characteristic of organic farming that forces them to spend more energy in the production of phytochemicals.
Whatever the reason, evidence for increased antioxidant activity in organically grown produce promises to help further drive organic sales and allow for increased creativity in the processed foods market. And if positive reinforcement wasn’t enough, there are additional reasons to consider this option: A recent study published in the open-access journal Biomedical Research International presented a disturbing picture of several pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that have been given the “green light” for safety at present levels.
The article, “Major Pesticides Are More Toxic to Human Cells than Their Declared Active Principles,” calls into question the safety of common pesticides.