BUSINESS

Is organic food worth the higher price? Many experts say no

Mintel study shows younger consumers are decidedly cynical about the high prices charged for organic goods

Kristin DiMarco was heading into a Trader Joe's in West Los Angeles the other day and knew for sure what she wouldn't be buying: anything organic.

"I just feel like I've already built up an immunity to anything that might be in my food," the 26-year-old told me.

Besides, she said, why would she want to pay a markup that can run double or triple the cost of conventional food?

"I don't think there's a big-enough difference in quality to justify those prices," DiMarco said.

She's not alone. The market research firm Mintel released a study last week showing that younger consumers — the fickle Gen X and millennial crowds — are decidedly cynical about the high prices charged for organic goods.

Only about 40% of Gen Xers believe that organic is organic, Mintel found. And about half of all consumers think labeling something organic is just an excuse to charge more.

"Consumers are increasingly hard-pressed to justify the added expense," said Billy Roberts, Mintel's senior food and drink analyst. "As such, sales have hit something of a plateau, where they likely will remain until consumers have a clear reason to turn to organics."

The marketing of organic food should rightly make consumers wary. Is it really better for you? Is it that different from conventional foods?

According to Consumer Reports, organic foods and beverages run an average 47% more in price than conventional alternatives. In some cases, the markup can be more than 300%. That's a hefty difference.

What you're paying for, presumably, is a more healthful diet. That means produce that hasn't been drenched in pesticides, chicken and beef that hasn't been pumped full of antibiotics, milk with even more nutritional value.

Lisa Herzig, an associate professor of nutrition at Fresno State, said common sense suggests that consuming foods with fewer pesticides will be better for you — but not enough to justify paying significantly more.

"Buying organic does not necessarily mean there's more health and nutrition benefits," she said. "The pesticide content will be higher with conventional produce, but it's still at safe levels."

Herzig said that what people who consistently eat organic foods are purchasing is the emotional satisfaction of knowing they're taking steps to improve themselves and the environment.

"Is it actually better for you?" she said. "I'd go with no."

The Mayo Clinic backs up that position. It says researchers have concluded that "organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are not significantly different in their nutrient content."

I chatted with about a dozen shoppers outside Trader Joe's. Nearly all said that they prefer organic foods and acknowledged that organic probably costs more because it's harder to produce.

But none believed that prices charged for organic foods reflect the true cost of bringing them to market. More likely, they said, is that prices are jacked way up to take advantage of people seeking healthy choices.

"It's a little fishy," said Adam Aghajani, 40. "It's hard to say how the whole organic thing works."

Perhaps this will help. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, produce can be called organic only if no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms were involved in its growth.

Meat is considered organic only if the animal was raised in a natural setting, was fed 100% organic feed and didn't receive any antibiotics or hormones.

When it comes to packaged foods, however, federal officials allow for a bit of wiggle room.

If a label says "100% organic," that means the product was made solely with organic ingredients, no ifs, ands or buts.

A label that simply says "organic," on the other hand, it means 95% of the ingredients are organic. That other 5%, not so much.

A product that boasts of being "made with organic ingredients" means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

So-called natural foods are a completely different critter.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center reported last year that nearly 60% of consumers look for the term "natural" on food labels when they shop.

But there is no legal definition for the term "natural or its derivatives," according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Generally speaking, the FDA says, natural foods should have no artificial ingredients, but there's no law to that effect.

Moreover, just because a food is said to be "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you. Sugar is a natural ingredient, after all.

"When you see 'natural' on the label, it means nothing," said Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis.

As for organic foods, she said, consumers shouldn't stress about buying the priciest shade-grown, free-range, no-chemicals-added products.

"My advice is to buy organic when affordable," Applegate said. "But for a consumer trying to feed a family in as healthy a way as possible, the cost probably isn't worth it. What's more important is simply eating fruits and vegetables, no matter how they were grown."

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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