DEAR DATA DOG: How do you explain the popularity of organic food?

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Imprecisely, for one thing. Since no one has been able to agree on just what organic is supposed to mean, the word remains an elastic term - denoting anything from "produced and processed without pesticides" to "holistically grown in natural harmony with the universe" to "not produced in a mad scientist's biogenetic laboratory."

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program released a first draft of organic standards for public comment ( Among the thousands of comments: sewage sludge shouldn't be an acceptable organic fertilizer - besides being agriculturally questionable, the advertising slogan "Grown with sludge!" is unlikely to make shoppers reach for that organic tomato. (The USDA is expected to release a second working definition this year.)

And, clearly, shoppers are reaching: according to Natural Foods Merchandiser, the organic food industry will rack up more than $7 billion in sales this year, up from $2.8 billion five years ago ( A 1998 Natural Foods Merchandiser report found that 56 percent of all shoppers had some experience with organic products, 23 percent used organic products twice a week or more, and 16 percent used organic produce weekly.

So what does organic mean to consumers? For many, it means "safe." According to a 1998 HealthFocus Trend Report, 67 percent of organic shoppers believe the products are safer for the environment, safer for farmers (62 percent), and safer to eat (62 percent). And three-quarters of all American shoppers believe organic products are grown without pesticides or herbicides ( This perception is significant, since food safety is very important to consumers, according to the 1999 Food Safety Survey of 400 consumers by the Food Practice Consulting Group ( The survey reports that 60 percent of consumers believe farmers do a good job of ensuring food safety, and 56 percent feel the same about supermarkets. (Only 39 percent think that government agencies are effective in ensuring food safety, just 1 percent more than the group earning the lowest confidence: meat and poultry packers.) Fittingly, Natural Foods Merchandiser says that 59 percent of con! sumers have purchased organic go ods from the grocery store, and 49 percent have purchased them from a farmer's market.

It seems that the public also connects "organic" with "healthy." The American Dietetic Association's "Nutrition and You: Trends 2000" report found that 52 percent of Americans believe organically grown fruits and vegetables are healthier than regular varieties (www. A 1999 Food Marketing Institute/Prevention Magazine survey revealed that one-third of shoppers buy organic food for health reasons ( And the HealthFocus report found that 51 percent of organic shoppers believe their organic foods to be more nutritious than nonorganic versions.

Whoever came up with "organic" was definitely thinking straight. It isn't easy to come up with a new name for edibles, as the U.S. International Food Information Council ( must know. In 1998, they asked consumers which of three terms they would like to see used for foods that, in addition to providing nutritional benefits, also serve to combat certain diseases. The loser: nutraceuticals, a futuristic term that conjures up images of popping blue beef-flavored pills for dinner. Unfortunately, the winner was functional food, a non-futuristic phrase that conjures up images of dissolving beef-flavored bouillon cubes in hot water for dinner. Not surprisingly, the ADA's Trends 2000 report found that 79 percent of Americans had never even heard of functional foods.

Another term that isn't doing so well is frankenfood. Still, you would think that the boom in organic produce would work against genetically engineered fruits and veggies. It doesn't look that way. A 1999 Gallup poll found that just 27 percent of Americans think biotechnology in general poses a serious health hazard, and a slim majority (51 percent) favors its use in food production. And when the Wirthlin Group asked shoppers how likely they would be to buy biotech food if it had been modified to taste better, 51 percent fell into the "likely" category.

It seems as long as it's edible, most Americans will call it food and eat it. No wonder 54 percent of us are overweight.

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