It usually doesn’t take the processed food industry long to trip to a trend.
When the first rumblings were heard about cholesterol being a bad substance, the market was flooded with products proudly proclaiming their cholesterol-freeness. It didn’t matter if the product was an apple, a banana, a nut or a grain, it was advertised as cholesterol free. Which was kind of ridiculous since no plant food of any kind contains cholesterol. Plants can’t make cholesterol, so they are all cholesterol free. But it made the sellers of these products appear to have done something special to create a cholesterol-free apple. I mean why buy an unlabeled apple when you could have a cholesterol-free one for just a few pennies more.
Then came fat free. Back a few years ago, I saw a bottle of soda with a label proclaiming that it contained no fat and no cholesterol. Really? Have soft drinks ever come with fat and cholesterol?
Not too long ago, we started seeing labels telling us the product inside contained no trans fats. We never saw these labels, of course, until after the news started circulating about what bad actors trans fats are.
Now we are in the throes of gluten-free mania. I’ve seen meats and nuts and all kinds of things that have never had gluten in them since the beginning of time labeled as gluten free. Plants don’t make cholesterol and animals don’t make gluten.
But the granddaddy of them all as far as wholesome labeling is concerned has got to be “organic.”
I know there are all kinds of regulations as to what makes a product legitimately qualified to be labeled “organic.” And by and large I would prefer an organic product over a conventionally-grown product as long as the expense difference wasn’t too great. There is just so much I’m willing to pay for wholesomeness.
My gripe with the term “organic” is that in the minds of many, probably most, it equates with good.
Sugar is bad, but organic pure cane sugar is okay because it is, well, organic. It doesn’t matter that plain old sugar is also pure cane sugar – it’s not organic.
So people will pay more to kill themselves with organic pure cane sugar than they will to do the deed with ordinary pure cane sugar.
If something is bad for you, it’s bad for you whether it’s organic or not. And therein lies the problem.
Marketers have discovered the magic of the word “organic.” A busy mom out shopping for a passel of kids scans the snack shelves at the grocery store and her eyes are drawn to the ones screaming “organic.” It’s the halo effect. Instead of feeling guilty because she’s buying snacks, she feels absolved because, after all, they are organic.
So, food manufacturers say, Let’s spend a few cents more on organic ingredients for our junk food, label it “organic,” charge 25 cents more for it and watch if fly off the shelves.
I’m on a rant about this because I happened to be in the pantry of some well-to-do friends of ours who have toddlers. I noticed a ton of snacks, all labeled organic, of course, and a giant bag of little packets of the candies pictured at the top of this post.
I pocketed one of the little packets for later examination.
The entire branding of the packets oozes sincerity and goodness. Everything from the name of the company with the sub tag “Homegrown” (flanked by tiny ears of wheat) to the little rabbit in the circle.
You can also see that there are no artificial flavors, synthetic colors or preservatives!
The candies (since when is a candy homegrown?) are called Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks, Summer Strawberry.
To a shopper, the only offensive thing on the entire front of the label is the word “snacks.” And that’s only because we’ve all heard that people snack too much, which, so we’ve also heard, is a major cause of obesity. But the word “snacks” is surrounded by all kinds of wholesomeness-conveying words: Bunny, fruit, summer strawberry. And even natural strawberry flavors, to boot. It’s a pastiche of marketing genius.
(Know what “natural” strawberry flavors are? Food technologists long ago figured out how to extract the specific taste molecules out of just about everything that tastes good. They’ve discovered the molecular structure so they can be reproduced in large quantities. But even though these molecules are the exact same molecules that create the taste of, say, strawberries, they can’t be labeled as “natural flavors.” To be legally allowed to label as “natural flavors,” the same molecules have to be actually extracted from strawberries. Which are, of course, the exact same molecules made industrially, but much more expensive. So if you want to label your product as containing natural flavors, you’ve got to pay for it. But all you really get is the ability to put “natural flavors” on the label. The product is no different than had the flavor molecules been created from scratch. It just costs more.)
So goodness and healthfulness practically jump off the front of this package. When we turn it over, what do we find?
Well, the ingredients, which aren’t even just listed as ingredients but as Best Ingredients, are:
Organic tapioca syrup
Organic cane sugar (they missed the chance to make it organic pure cane sugar)
Organic tapioca syrup solids
Organic white grape juice concentrate
Pectin, citric acid, and all the rest.
The first four ingredients are all various forms of highly concentrated carbs or outright sugars.
This little packet of snacks, the contents of which you see in its entirety at the top of this post, contain 18 grams of refined carb, including 10 grams of sugar. 18 grams of highly refined carbs equates to 3.6 teaspoons of sugar. The entire blood volume of an adult contains about a teaspoon of sugar; that of a toddler much less. So the metabolisms of toddlers throwing back just one of these packets (and who eats just one?) must deal with about four times the amount of sugar than their blood can normally accommodate.
If you look at the rest of the ingredients, you will see that despite its name being Bunny Fruit Snacks Summer Strawberry, there is not a strawberry anywhere near it. The only strawberry falls under the rubric “Natural Flavors” and is the molecule or molecules giving strawberries their taste that has been extracted from strawberries.
So these are not fruit snacks, they are basically little lumps of strawberry-flavored sugar.
But they’re organic.
And that’s the problem. The mother who purchased these snacks by the giant bagful is a good mom. She is totally conscientious, watches her kids sugar intake and would never, ever purchase a product called strawberry flavored sugar. But she bought these because she was seduced by the term “organic.”
Which is what the video on the manufacturer’s site wants its customers to think: I love you and I care about your health.
How could anything organic be bad?
That’s the point. You’ve got to be as careful purchasing products labeled “organic” as you are with any non-organic consumables.
Oh, and if you go to this company’s website, you’ll find all kinds of pictures of barns, fields, blue skies, rosy-cheeked kids, ruddy farmworkers, and other outdoorsy goodness. If you click some of the tabs, you’ll find verbiage that ranges from the treacly to the outright nauseating about how concerned these folks are about the planet, their customers and the integrity of their products.
If you dig a little deeper and click on the Investor Relations link in the lower left, you’ll find the company is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and has revenues approaching $200 million per year, hardly the little farming operation the rest of the website would have you believe it is.
Not that there is anything wrong with a business being big and being on the New York Stock Exchange. I would love it if our sous vide business reached those levels and our company made it on the NYSE.
The point of this post isn’t to bash this company; it is just marketing its products to the best of its ability. And it is certainly far from the only one doing the same thing.
The point, I guess, is just a rant about the halo effect associated with the term “organic” and a cautionary tale about how someone else got sucked in. Not that readers of this blog would ever fall for that. But you may know someone who might, so feel free to pass this post along.
If you’ve got any particularly egregious samples of organic labeling, post them in the comments so we can all enjoy them.
Organic: Healthful or Hype?