Organic Food May be the New Look of Healthy

Organic foods are breaking barriers, going more mainstream and leaving 'specialty' sections behind, as consumers are increasingly buying more of them. But are they really safer and more nutritious?

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Should you buy organic foods and beverages? You probably are. The U.S. market for organic foods and beverages is performing at a lively pace, and will continue to do so for at least three more years because of the healthy, clean and better-for-you movements.

The Organic Trade Assn., Washington, estimates that roughly 80 percent of American families purchase some organic foods. Last year, consumers gobbled up a record amount of organic foods, as sales reached $35.9 billion, says the OTA. TechSci Research says the organic food and beverage market is set to perform solidly through 2018.

Shoppers are buying organic foods at conventional food stores more regularly, not just occasionally. "Organics may be the new healthy look of food everywhere," proclaims Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA. "Organic cuts across all regions, ages, income groups and states."

Falling out of favor for its high carbs, calories and sugar, orange juice used to be a breakfast mainstay in most homes. It could be that way again, if premium juice maker Uncle Matt’s Organic has anything to do with it. The Clermont, Fla., company wants to wake up the orange juice market with its organic, low-calorie/low-sugar blends and two new flavors out since August: Orange Turmeric and Orange Coconut with Probiotics. Orange Coconut has 70 calories per 8-oz. serving and zingy Orange Turmeric has more than 500mg of turmeric per 8-oz. serving.

Both 100 percent juices contain Ganeden's BC30 probiotic, which supports digestive health and the immune system. "Consumers who don’t like taking supplements will have one more option at the grocery aisle to boost their health with a great tasting beverage the whole family will love," says Matt McLean, Uncle Matt's CEO/founder.

Most supermarkets have organic produce, but dairy and meat cases and even center-store sections are offering more organic choices. Annie's Homegrown Inc., Berkeley, Calif., recently unveiled a new center-store organic product, Annie's Organic Grass Fed Classic Mild Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese, made with organic pasta and milk from grass-fed cows.

Advocates says organic foods are more nutritious and safer because they have no chemical pesticide or fertilizer residues; perhaps as a result, they also claim they taste better than non-organic products. They maintain organic production is better for the environment and kinder to animals.

And all U.S. organic foods must be grown and processed according to standards set by USDA. If a food product has a "USDA organic" label, a government-approved expert has inspected the farm where it was produced to ensure the farm follows the agency's requirements. Organic crops also must be produced without conventional pesticides (including herbicides), synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. The chances of incurring pesticide residues are much less with organic food, affirms John Reganold, professor of soil science at Washington State University, Pullman, Wash.

But natural toxins can be generated by plants themselves, and organic crops usually encounter more pests and weeds than conventional crops, so it's possible conventional foods may have some advantages. Still, there's little evidence that organic food has more bacterial contamination than conventional food.

According to USDA, organically raised animals must be given organic feed, be kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics and have access to the outdoors, including pastureland for grazing. Consider McDonald's decision to use to cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada over the next decade, a move based on consumer demand for improved treatment of animals. Perhaps consumers feel better about organic production practices.

Without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic foods should be healthier, proponents argue. Several studies have compared the chemical compositions of organic and conventional foods, but there's no conclusive evidence. Most organic food is pricier, but people are willing to pay, perhaps because of the extra attention paid to food quality.

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