More consumers are opting for organic products when filling their shopping baskets. Eighty-one percent of parents in the United States purchase organic at least occasionally, according to the 2013 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and Kiwi magazine (a 3% increase from the previous survey). Although produce is the leading category (97%), the study found that 89% of organic buyers purchase organic dairy products and 25% always buy organic dairy products.

OTA’s report also found that those buyers spend more per shopping trip and are more frequent shoppers versus those who never purchase organic items. Almost half (48%) say they choose organic foods because they are healthier for their families. Forty-two percent surveyed agreed strongly with the statement, “Organic foods are better for you and for the environment.”


A healthy debate

Two studies last fall — one by Stanford University and one by the American Academy of Pediatrics — reported that organic food was no more nutritious than conventionally farmed food. But both did note that eating organic could lower one’s exposure to pesticides and antibiotics. And that is important to many consumers. Respondents to the OTA survey noted they purchased organic items to avoid toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers (30%), antibiotics and growth hormones (29%) and genetically modified organisms (22%).

Currently, the United States does not require labeling of genetically engineered foods so for shoppers who want to be certain GMOs were not used, they must choose items with the USDA organic label. To receive the label, no synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering may be used in its production.

“The reality is that we’re not claiming organic food is healthier but that it is made without things — GMOs, hormones, pesticides — that we believe are not healthy for you,” said Lewis Goldstein, Organic Valley’s executive marketing director. “We are a tiny industry compared to the huge agribusiness and don’t have a large research engine. But the organic industry is beginning to work together and there will be studies that will happen.”

Christine Bushway, OTA’s executive director and CEO, adds that the link between the nutritional profile of foods and agronomic practices is an emerging research topic. “We are optimistic,” she said, “that in the future, good applied scientific research on organic food and farming will show that healthy soils produce healthy foods.”


Processors educate consumers

Consumer education continues to be a priority for manufacturers. While the OTA survey found price to be the top barrier to purchase, 34% said they don’t believe in organic benefits and 30% are apathetic or uninformed about the category. So there is room to drive demand and sales by informing shoppers of the health and environmental benefits of organic.

Broomfield, Colo.-based WhiteWave Foods Co.’s Horizon Organic brand uses its packaging as well as website and social media channels to share information.

“On our website, consumers can find a variety of information about organic agriculture and how Horizon products are made,” explained Sara Loveday, senior marketing communications manager, “as well as things like our ‘Standards of Care,’ that guide and govern how we treat the cows on our company-owned farms in Idaho and Maryland.”

Companies are also looking to innovation to spur growth. In April, Horizon Organic launched shelf-stable, single-serve boxes of low-fat 1% organic milk with DHA omega-3 in vanilla and chocolate flavors (see photo on next page). Packaging highlights the benefits with “DHA Omega-3 Supports Brain Health” placed prominently on the front. Also called out is the fact that the milk is produced without pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones or cloning.

As with all of the brand’s omega-3 fortified products, a plant-based ingredient is used. “These are free from ocean contaminants, do not contribute to overfishing and are a better option for those following a vegetarian diet,” said Loveday.

Private-label supplier Aurora Organic Dairy based in Boulder, Colo. also offers an omega-3 enhanced milk for consumers “striving to get more omega-3 fatty acids in their diets,” said spokesperson Sonja Tuitele. She also notes that consumers have responded positively to the company’s extended-shelf-life gallons that have three times the code life of other gallon-milk products.

“This dramatically reduces product losses for retailers,” Tuitele said. “And when consumers know there is a longer code life on a gallon of organic milk, they don’t mind paying more for that product because they have more time to enjoy it.”

Wisconsin-based Organic Valley, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has rolled out several new products, with more on the way. In May, to celebrate its anniversary, the brand released limited-edition Grassmilk Raw Cheddar cheese and Sharp Cheddar in eight-ounce wedges. To retain the layers of grassmilk’s flavor, the cheese is handcrafted and aged in small batches. This fall look for an expansion of some of the brand’s current lines.

Organic Valley Grassmilk in whole, 2% and fat-free versions launched last year on the West Coast. Produced from cows that are 100% grass-fed, Goldstein calls the specialty milk an artisan product. Since it is minimally processed and non-homogenized, it’s a “cream-on-top” milk (excluding the fat-free variety) with a unique taste profile.

Unprocessed, organic, real American cheese slices hit supermarkets, natural foods stores and food cooperatives nationally last June.

Lifeway Foods, Morton Grove, Ill., has relaunched its Helios Kefir with extra protein and new flavors such as Pear & Honey. ProBugs Blast is a new line of organic kefir for older children while ProBugs Bites are new freeze-dried kefir melts for babies learning to self-feed.

For many of Lifeway’s organic products the packaging has evolved to a crisper, clean look — lots of white space, minimal copy and a beauty shot. “The goal for our design and branding,” explains Derek Miller, director of digital marketing, “is to represent the pure and natural content of our products.”

Organic Valley is also rolling out revamped packaging this year. Woodcut images are being replaced with full-color photos of farmers and cows. Cartons are also signed by an Organic Valley farmer.

“Lots of people didn’t realize the woodcuts were our actual farmers,” Goldstein explains. “The new images are much more realistic. Consumers want to know their food comes from people who care.”

Having wrapped up its two-year Generation Organic “Who’s Your Farmer?” Bus Tour, Goldstein said they will continue to focus on the mission of attracting young farmers to organics and consumer education about food choices but aren’t announcing specific plans until later this year.

To debunk old misconceptions that health food doesn’t taste good, Lifeway turns to sampling. The brand has made appearances at South Beach Food and Wine (Miami Beach, Fla.), South by Southwest (Austin, Texas), Boston Marathon, Cubs/Wrigley Field events (Chicago), Lollapalooza (Chicago) and many other events.


More channels of distribution

Growth for the category is also coming by way of increased distribution in conventional grocers. “In New York our distribution is even expanding to bodegas and smaller, neighborhood markets,” said Goldstein. “Large drug chains are expanding their testing of organic, fluid milk and we continue to grow in clubs.”

A 24-pack of Stringles (organic string cheese) just launched at Costco in Northern California. And for the first time, the brand is testing TV and radio advertising in select regional markets.

Although Cleveland’s Miceli Dairy Foods hasn’t found organic cheese to have the same growth that organic fluid milk has, Mark Arndt, who heads foodservice and retail sales, said sales are trending upward. Under its own private label organic line, Franchester Farms, the cheesemaker offers organic ricotta, mozzarella chunks as well as shredded and fresh mozzarella. It’s offered these for about a decade (the company has sold conventional cheeses under the Miceli’s label since the 1920s) and Arndt said “we are seeing interest from the large retailers on adding organic cheese to their organic lines.”

Tom Gleason, president of Oregon Ice Cream, Vancouver, Wash., agrees that more organic volume is being sold through mainstream grocers.

“Merchandisers were putting organics over in one corner and that is not a natural shopping pattern,” Gleason said. “Now it’s more integrated into the national set.”

The brand’s demographic had been higher-educated and higher-income consumers, but he said that is changing with a younger shopper (say 16 to 30) opting for its frozen treats. “The next generation has grown up with learning more about the environment through school and social media. There is a higher awareness that what you are putting in your body matters.”

This year, the company has added to its Julie’s Organic line with a frozen yogurt sandwich. Alden’s Organic now offers a 48-ounce organic ice cream in a variety of flavors, including birthday cake. “Desserts,” notes Gleason, “can be a gateway to other organic products.”