Organic and Healthy Losing Meaning Through Overuse

Sept. 13, 2007
Do the terms "organic" and "healthy" lose their meaning when they're applied to every food and beverage product? There’s danger in blurring lines between what is organic or healthy and what is merely marketed as such.

With organic becoming such a byword -- or should I write "buy word?" -- of our food environment, does the term "organic" -- and maybe even "healthy" -- lose meaning when applied to every food and beverage product?

I'm not backtracking from my editorial stance last year in which I expressed discomfort over the inclusion of "fair-trade," "sustainably farmed" and/or similar designations under the organic umbrella. I still believe those certifications are best left to stand alone. The danger I see is in blurring lines between what is better for you and what is merely marketed as such.

This is not so much from worrying that processors are trying to fool consumers -- it's from worrying processors are trying to fool themselves.

Don't kid yourself. Consumers are taking everything with a grain of salt these days (except the nonscience-based slams of salt, but that's another editorial). Jane and Joe Sixpack are smarter than they were in the 1950s, when conformity and ovine complacency were virtues.

Seeking and applying an organic or health-oriented designation to a product that neither merits the label nor for which the nature of the ingredients truly affect the end result may not confuse consumers now so much as anger them.

There's no denying the short-term value in the market for such foods and ingredients as organic salt or phytoplankton-laced martinis (I'm not making that one up). The former appeals to the obsessively organic, the latter to…well, I'm not sure.

Then there's the occasion when the mad rush to get in on the organic act causes a company to cut corners. A major grocery retailer gets busted for selling as organic nonorganic produce. A formerly trend-setting organic dairy company, desperate to keep up with high demand, streamlines its practices to the point of beggaring the definition. Short-term value has a way of backfiring. That's why it's called "short term."

On the health front, marketing efforts for some products and ingredients have been awful, with overblown science and the approach to the consumer either an attempt to dazzle with high-tech or dumbed down to an insult. Putting healthful plant sterols into beer is just plain missing the point -- of sterols and of beer.

When cholesterol popped up as the scare word of food several decades ago, everything suddenly received a "no cholesterol!" starburst on its packaging. Although cholesterol only comes from animal-derived products (including dairy and eggs), cereals and beverages and candy bars were cashing in on the "cholesterol-free" fad. (Sadly, that bit of applied ignorance is creeping back, probably to replace the dying "low carb" craze.) Remember the "Jellybean Rule?"

Even after the government declared you could label something as cholesterol-free only if it was a formulation that could originally have contained cholesterol, there was little or no policing of the unscrupulous marketing juggernaut.

When today's smarter, better-informed consumers tell processors they want to know what's in their food and where it came from, it's because they want assurance the ingredients don't include melamine or E. coli. It's not because they are blindly following some fad.

The same way health designations for labeling must adhere to strict definitions (though some say they should be stricter), the definition of organic is -- and should be -- based on logical, readily accountable parameters. However, that does not mean everything that fits those same parameters should receive an organic or healthful label. Frozen chicken fried steak with ham hock gravy may conform to the rules, but does it really matter if it does?