The organic food industry has grown from fresh produce and grains to snack foods and condiments — from farmers markets to supercenters.
Has this new variety in organic products and the availability of them affected consumers' perceptions?
University of Illinois food economist Brenna Ellison and her team designed an experiment to provide insight on some of the variables that may influence opinions about organic foods.
"Past research has often asked how much someone is willing to pay for an organic product but has rarely considered the context in which that purchase takes place," Ellison said. "In this study, we look at how the organic label interacts with the product type as well as the retail purchase context."
Ellison and her team conducted an experiment with 605 people to evaluate a food product’s expected taste, nutrition, safety and likelihood of purchase. The products were strawberries and chocolate sandwich cookies sold by a fictitious brand called Cam's. In the experiment, the products were either organic or non-organic and sold in one of two supercenters: Walmart or Target. Each participant evaluated only one of the eight potential combinations.
"We chose strawberries and cookies because they represent a 'virtue' and a 'vice' product, respectively, and both are currently available in the marketplace in organic and non-organic forms," Ellison explained. "We chose Target and Walmart because the two stores have similar prices but very different brand images. Target has positioned itself in the marketplace as a store that emphasizes style, design and aspiration. Walmart, conversely, promotes a low price image."
Results of the study showed that context indeed matters. While organic products were generally rated more highly than non-organic, the researchers found an interesting interaction between the organic label and product type.
"Organic strawberries had higher expected taste ratings than non-organic strawberries, but cookie taste ratings did not differ," Ellison said. "However, the opposite was true with nutrition ratings. Organic cookies were rated as more nutritious — almost twice as healthy — as non-organic cookies, but no difference was observed for strawberry ratings.
"These results suggest that the purchase of organic virtue foods like strawberries may be based more on taste considerations, but organic vice foods like cookies may be purchased based on nutrition considerations," Ellison explained.
Another finding from the research was that where the food item was purchased mattered. The researchers concluded that retailers like Target may be better outlets for promoting organic vice products, while retailers like Walmart may be good outlets for promoting organic virtue products.
The study also revealed that participants seemed misinformed about organic standards.
"Even though products carrying the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Organic label must contain at least 95% organic ingredients by definition, our participants believed organic cookies only contained 62% organic ingredients," Ellison said. "This suggests more education may be needed to ensure consumers understand what the organic label means and that this definition does not change across products or stores."
The research was published in Food Quality & Preference.