OPINION: Marketing genius of organic foods unwrapped

If marketing is the art of persuading consumers to buy things, then the initial promoters of “organic” foods – all amateurs with little or no marketing experience – have taught advertising and sales promotion experts a thing or three. [Some astute commentary by Keith Bryer. Ed]

Now ingrained in middle class culture, organic is superior, and free range is a moral choice. Everybody knows it. It no longer needs advertising.

Labelling alone does the trick. Organic foods are “in”. And business has cashed in on it. In the US, Stanford University estimated that the organic foods market leapt to $26.7-billion (R294bn) in 2010 from $3.7bn in 1997.

How did the perception that it is better to buy “organic” food happen?

Hippies did it. The flower-power people of the 1960s, dropping out and turning on, living off-grid, were responsible. Their food had to be organic and free range; they could not afford pest sprays or chemical fertilisers. Their sandals were homemade; they wove their own cloth, and so on.

Their seemingly free lifestyle looked glamorous to middle class students later to be mums and dads in the suburbs. Those who joined the media carried the torch further. So the indoctrination began.

It soon became a fashionable bandwagon begging for passengers, whom it duly got in the form of people selling anything organic – even bicycles with bamboo frames. But, but, but. How much better is organic and free range food? Does it really justify the extra expense?

It is worth looking closely at the claims. Organic or free range food is supposed to taste better; be healthier for you; have no pesticide residuals; and have nothing in it but what Mother Nature intended.

Well, yes and no, according to some researchers who do not take assertions at face value, however loudly they are proclaimed. Is organic food safer? Logic says yes. Research says perhaps and not by much – and not always.

Small amounts of pesticides are found in both organic and ordinary food. It is marginally lower in organic foods but nothing to prove that ordinary food is bad for humans. On the pesticide front it seems there is not much benefit in eating organic.

When it comes to contamination, E coli, the bacteria that can have awful results in humans (and did so in Germany not so long ago), can be in both organic and commercial food. The jury is out on which is worse and by what degree. Organic products win in some comparisons.

Toxic metal contamination of organic produce has been found to be similar to that of non-organic produce, and most research has found negligible differences.

Food additives are obviously not present in organic food, but there is no proof that approved additives are harmful….

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