Organic industry reacts to comparative nutrition study

July 21 , 2014

Reactions to a new study espousing the superior nutritional benefits of organic food have actually been mixed amongst organic produce companies themselves, but one common denominator is positivity. Speaking with proponents of the category on both sides of the Atlantic, some were overjoyed while others dismissed the meta-analysis as 'insignificant'. Accusations were also made that corporations had been purposefully misleading consumers to boost sales, while one company representative fought back at those claiming organic food was just too expensive.

Organic companies across the U.S. and Europe have, rather unsurprisingly, noted their lack of surprise at the recent study that found greater nutritional benefits in organic food when compared to food from conventional crops.

For most of the companies interviewed, the study's findings came not as much as 'news' than a confirmation of what they already believed to be the case.

A spokesperson of U.S.-based Awe Sum Organics said she was delighted to hear of the new independent study, and went on to accuse interested parties within the industry of paying for research that concluded there was no benefits in organic photo

"I am elated that there is more independent research coming forward on the subject of organic food. Those of us who embrace the organic philosophy understand it to be more than just a fad," said marketing director Elizabeth Posner.

"When you kill the soil with toxic pesticides, you deplete the nutrient-rich soil that creates life. There are many independent scientists coming forward and sharing research that we should all take seriously."

Posner also urged consumers to educate themselves about what they eat and to think more critically about where certain information on food nutrition comes from.

"Unfortunately we have very large corporations that put profits over the health of our people. It's all in perception, and these same corporations spend a lot of money to convince us that there is no difference between the two, which is completely not true," she said.

"A lot of us already know that those studies are basically paid for by these high bio-tech companies to sell these pesticides that promote the conventional foods.

"It's something to be concerned about. It's not always funded by the right source."

Consumers 'just have to open their eyes'

Pacific Organic Produce founder Greg Holzman was also welcoming of the study but said his company had never claimed that organic food was necessarily more nutritional than conventionally grown produce, adding there were other important aspects of the industry consumers should consider.

"We certainly feel we're healthier for the body, but mostly for the planet. That has always been my contention since I visit the farms all the time," said Holzman.

"The fertilizer, the pesticides, the fungicides, the herbicides, the water, the air, the workers - I'm out in the field a lot and I know that consumers are much more interested in their personal health and think that organic is going to help them do that.

Holzman also said that both his company and the organic marketplace were growing rapidly regardless of studies like this, as consumers were seeing the benefits to organic.

"There is more product in the supply chain, there is more demand than ever before that I can remember. We're growing bigger and faster than we've had in years," he said.

"I think there's already enough distrust of the big pharmaceutical and agro-chemical companies out there that I think the community at large throughout the world - at least in Europe and the U.S., and it's starting to in Asia - gets that there's something to this organic farming and that's kind of wonderful.

"I visit a lot of farms and I know it for sure. You just have to open your eyes."

Issues with the organic brand

Across the Atlantic in the U.K., a representative from organic grower and packer Ethical Fruit Company said it was nice to now be able to tell customers what he had already known but wasn't able to officially claim. Prior to this he had to contend with a 2009 study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that found no significant nutritional benefits from organic food.

"There was a piece of work that came out a few years ago through the FSA that tried to disclaim that organic food, and specifically organic fruit, had any additional benefit," said managing director Adam Wakeley.

"[But it was] only a snapshot of other reviews, wasn't peer-reviewed, and they also only chose studies which weren't peer-reviewed. So it was very selective and very repetitive.

"We have to be very careful about what we claim and what we don't claim, especially when the conventional market has got a vested interested in trying to sell more fruit, which is completely understandable."

Wakeley said the FSA study essentially sharpened everyone's mind as to needing scientific proof to claim what many people saw as self-evident.

"It just seems totally logical that a product that is grown in natural soil and hasn't got chemicals pumped all over it is going to have more of a beneficial impact to a consumer than a product that is covered in pesticides and does have spray residues," he said.

"So I'm not surprised, and I'm pleased that it's a serious piece of work that's been about five years coming and has been peer-reviewed so we can just say what we know. It is an advantage."

Wakeley went on to say he believed the study would not boost organic sales alone, as the organic industry's main issue lay within its brand.

"I think there are large sways of the country and of the populace who just don't get organic, and frankly don't really want to get it either," he said,

"The brand has got a problem in that it is deemed to be middle class, which occurred between 2005 and 2010, and I think people quite like to knock it. They either think it's a hippie piece of rubbish or just for the rich middle classes, and so they exclude themselves from it.

"I do think that over the course of time things will change because the biggest growing consumers for the organic market are the 18-25 year-olds, and they're the ones who seem to be a lot more conscientious and concerned about sustainability and about nutrition and about equality."

He added that the two main points thrown at him in opposition to organic food were normally the question of whether it could feed the world, and the fact that it was too expensive for many people to afford.

"The first one strikes me as a bit of an oxymoron given that the headlines next to that are 'the world faces an obesity crisis' - 75% of the world to me seems to be obese," Wakeley said.

"It strikes me that we're producing too much food and feeding too many people. A lot of the problem is not how we grow food to feed the world, it's where the food goes for the right people.

He used the U.S. as an example, mentioning the superpower consumed a significantly disproportionate amount of the world's food.

"So if you were to move some of that food around the world you would get rid of some of your challenge of feeding the world."

On the issue of high prices, Wakeley said that it was all a matter of choice, and often the people who don't want to spend a bit more money on healthier produce are those who will spend far more money on cigarettes or alcohol.

"It's all relative - people can afford organic food if they choose to afford it, they choose not to afford and spend their money in other areas," he said.

Discussion of organic benefits 'insignificant'

Elsewhere in Europe, OTC Holland commercial manager Matthe Hendrikse said while the new study was good news, people had to actually start believing in the information for it to be of any use.

"You see all kinds of studies every week which show that it [organic] is healthier, but on the other hand there are a lot of studies that show us that it's the other way around - that there's no difference at all," said Hendrikse.

"At the end of the day it's very simple - if you grow organic fruits and vegetables it must be more healthy simply because of the fact that you don't use any chemicals. For me that's a fact.

"I think the problem is you have to convince the current consumers of these very simple facts because the distance between the product and the consumer is getting bigger, simply because they don't have the knowledge anymore of how things grow."

"The supermarkets now want to sell everything all year round, so if a 10-year-old kid is walking through the supermarket and wants grapes, he will see grapes all year.

"He is not interested anymore where they're coming from, when grapes are in season. He doesn't know, he doesn't care. There are grapes in the supermarket and that's it."

A representative from fellow Dutch organic company Eosta echoed Holzman's stance saying that while he was happy science had proven what he already thought, there was much more to the organic farming method than the food's nutritional content.

"We're in organics not just for the health benefits but we're in organics for the broadest sense of the word. So when it comes to soil, biodiversity, all kinds of other things like that play a huge role in what we do," said sustainability and communications manager Michael Wilde.

"So this discussion about whether organic is healthier I personally think is a little bit insignificant because consumers feel in their bones that this is the case."

Wilde also said he believed critical buyers throughout the world were no longer listening to companies or governments when it comes to information about the nutrition of their food.

"They want to find out for themselves and that's what counts, perhaps what an odd NGO says - they still have a lot of credibility. But companies and politicians don't have that much credibility certainly when it comes to these types of issues," he said.

"In that way I think it's more of a confirmation of what people felt and the whole study thing, the whole science thing has been used by people mainly not in organic to show that organic is not healthier, so the studies have always been used in that regard.

"I think it will help, but it's not going to make a huge difference because organic will continue to grow even if a study comes out saying it's not healthier."

Related article: Organic crops have significantly more antioxidants, study finds