Organic foods going mainstream
Linda Gill is a fairly typical organic food shopper: She’s willing to pay more because she believes organic food is healthier.
“I know there’s a lot of debate about whether it’s really any different than regular food,” says Gill, 45, of Shadyside, part of the throng of shoppers crowded into Whole Foods in East Liberty on a recent afternoon.
Then she points to son Jonah, 3, sitting in the grocery cart.
“I know I can’t protect him from everything, but at least he won’t be eating pesticides,” she says.
At its most basic, organic food is grown without pesticides, hormones or genetically modified organisms.
Organic brands have begun taking over grocery store aisles. To see how mainstream organic has gone, look at the success of Whole Foods and the enduring East End Co-op in Homewood.
“When I started, our typical shoppers were earthy-crunchy tofu people,” says Casey Dill, team leader at the Whole Foods store in East Liberty, who has been with the Austin, Texas-based company for 17 years. “But now, particularly in my store, it crosses so many different cultures and economic groups.”
His shoppers still include the affluent and middle class, but the East Liberty store has a lot of food stamp customers as well, he said.
Giant Eagle introduced its own organic line, Nature’s Basket, in 2004 in response to consumer demand, says company spokesman Daniel Donovan. The line includes soy milk, eggs, tortilla chips, peanut butter, cereals, baby food, salsa, pasta sauces, dressings, olive oil and pasta.
Organic food and its customers have changed a lot since the East End Food Co-op opened in 1977, says general manager Rob Baran. For one thing, most organic items are not as expensive as they once were, due in large part to better distribution networks among organic farmers, says Dave Headings, the co-op’s produce manager.
“One of the challenges is that the demand has far outstripped the supply,” Headings says.
There is no universal definition for “organic” foods, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has changed or altered its definition annually for the last three years.
Baran fears new government regulations on organic food may be weakening standards.
“The standards for what can be considered organic have dramatically changed,” Baran says. “They can have some synthetic ingredients. There’s a lot of concern about the degradation of the national (organic) label. A lot of co-ops are working on what we can do to maintain organic quality.”
The East End Co-op is member-owned and operated, and a $100 fee gives members discounts from 2 percent to 10 percent. Member services director Kara Holsopple says there are currently more than 6,000 active co-op members.
The Pittsburgh Whole Foods was the chain’s busiest in the country when it first opened, Dill says. There’s been so much demand — parking at the East Liberty store is challenging even during off-peak hours — that another Whole Foods store is planned for Bridgeville. The opening date hasn’t been announced.
“We expected this area to be a lot more difficult,” Dill says. “But this store has been one of the most successful ever.”
The ‘Dirty Dozen’
Next month’s Consumer Reports magazine has an in-depth look at which organic foods are “worth” buying, even with higher price tags than their conventional counterparts.
Some fruits and vegetables retain high levels of pesticides even after being washed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — so buying organic is worth the extra cost, Consumer Reports says.
The so-called “dirty dozen” are apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, raspberries, spinach and strawberries, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C. research and advocacy group.
But pesticide residues are rarer on these foods: asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papayas, pineapples and sweet peas, so buying organic might not be worth the price, Consumer Reports says.
Shoppers who want to avoid the hormones and antibiotics given to cows and chickens raised for slaughter should opt for organic, the magazine says. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to develop organic certification for seafood.
Comparing apples to apples