Back to nature: Organic products are becoming mainstream

Organic food and other products are becoming more common on store shelves
Organic food has come a long way since sunflower-seed granola and pesticide-free carrots were mainstays of the industry.

Although still a staple of health-food stores and farmers markets, organics now are gently weaving their way into supermarkets, warehouse clubs and convenience stores, where they are not only competing with mainstream brands, but thriving.

"Where it ends, I don't know. But five, maybe 10 percent of the overall food market will be organic over the next 20 years," predicted Campbell's Soup senior manager Steve DeMuri during last week's All Things Organic trade show at Chicago's McCormick Place.

Organic products are minimally processed and do not use artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation. They are grown in a way that preserves the environment and that follows federal organic guidelines.

The organic industry

Like a ladybug on a watermelon, the organic industry remains small compared to the conventional food industry. Retail sales of organic foods were $12.7 billion last year, compared to $550 billion for more traditional foods, according to the Organic Trade Association, sponsor of the conference.

Mainstream foods, however, are increasing two percent to three percent annually, while organics have been harvesting 20 percent growth for the last dozen years.

The All Things Organic show, closed to the public, is where vendors of organic products meet, greet and, perhaps, sign contracts with retailers.

More than just food

The show floor was filled with more than 400 exhibitors, hawking everything from Late July peanut butter sandwich crackers to Tender Tush Organics, cotton diapers in nine colors. In between: shampoos, cosmetics, chocolates, beer, wine, ice cream, clothing, spices, grains, juices, coffees, meats, eggs, cheese, produce, pet foods, baked goods, cleaning supplies, frozen entrees and vitamins.

"Consumers today are demanding a creative variety of organic products," said Katherine DiMatteo, the Organic Trade Association's executive director. "The organic industry is keeping pace with consumer demands through groundbreaking offerings."

The term "groundbreaking" may be hyperbole, but there certainly is variety.

Healthy Handfuls are certified organic snacks for kids. Packaged in single-serve pouches, there are pretzels; cheddar-cheese duck-shaped crackers; oatmeal-raisin cookies; and lemon-vanilla koala-shaped crackers. All are low in sodium and are made without hydrogenated oils, trans fats, preservatives or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

"These aren't just for weirdos and Birkenstocks," said company co-founder Debbie Reynolds, based in Grass Valley, Calif. "So many people are having children later in life. You see a mom in her 40s and a dad in his 50s. They want to live longer."

Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland was at the show, touting its organic soy powder used as an ingredient in puddings and soy milk.

ADM global business manager Phil Fass said less than one percent of the company's soybeans are organic, but the demand has been increasing by 30 percent to 40 percent for the last five years.

High fashion

A big draw at the conference was a fashion show, complete with models, photographers, urban music and a runway. It showed off men's, women's and children's clothing made with organically grown fibers, such as cotton, wool, linen and silk.

"Celebrity and high-fashion designers have introduced their lines, and the colors are not just beige anymore," said Lisa Bell, a spokeswoman for the show. Manufacturers typically have names like I Wear Red Shoes, Green Babies and Round Belly Clothing.

For fabrics to be certified organic, all stages of processing -- from pest management and harvesting to dyeing and storage -- have to adhere to prescribed standards. Boutiques and specialty stores are where most of the textiles are sold, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Major brands going organic

When it comes to food, look for more organics from major brands.

Campbell Soup launched organic tomato juice in 2003 and now offers organic V8 juice, Pace salsa, Prego spaghetti sauce and Swanson broths.

Kraft owns Boca Burgers, Coca-Cola bought Odwalla natural beverages and General Mills has Cascadian Farm. Con-Agra is planning to offer six tomato products under its Hunt's label, as well as organic popcorn under its Orville Redenbacher brand.

"I think it's an indication of the popularity of organics," said Julie DeYoung of ConAgra.

Campbell's DeMuri said the cost of obtaining organic products has been decreasing, and that is encouraging more mainstream food producers to offer organics.

"It's critical to large companies," he said about the need to offer the consumer a choice.

Not all of the conference participants were marketing to the public.

Kunafin, a firm based in Quemado, Texas, sells "beneficial insects" to organic growers, creatures like ladybugs, lacewings and trichogramma that help control agricultural pests. The Brenmar Co. of LaVista, Neb., makes a clear food container from corn; it looks like plastic but breaks down into compost. Even Farm Aid had a booth at the show, promoting its 20th anniversary concert scheduled for Sept. 18 (the location has not been decided).

Popular organics: Baby food, dairy and produce

Organics aren't for everyone, but there are three "gateways" that tend to draw consumers to them: baby food, dairy and produce.

"Parents will go out of their way to buy organic," said Richard Prescott of Healthy Times Baby, a Poway, Calif., firm that makes teething crackers, teddy bear-shaped cereal and bottled baby foods.

Another factor that leads to the use of organics is convenience.

"Make it easy for people to eat organic," said the trade show's Bell. "Pre-sliced apples you can throw in a lunch, snacks in serving-size containers."

She said gourmet foods are another lure, items like high-end chocolates, premium ice cream, fine teas and rich coffees.

"We're seeing more high-quality, beautiful products. At one time, people knew us for granola and things that didn't taste great. Now it's gone in the opposite direction."

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