‘Green noise’ confuses consumers, research finds
By Mateusz Perkowski
Restaurateurs are reducing organic claims on their menus in favor of claims related to geography, allergens and other features, according to market research.
The term “organic” remains the top ethical claim on restaurant menus but its usage has dropped 28 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the Mintel market research firm.
Meanwhile, menus are more likely to contain claims like “gluten-free” that provide nutritional information or details about where products were grown, according to Mintel.
Less specific terms like “original recipe,” “signature,” “farmstead” and “farm style” are also on the rise, the company said.
Experts say the trend probably reflects the broader profusion of claims in the food industry, which may confuse some consumers.
Roughly one-third of people surveyed by the Consumers Union believe that “organic” is basically the same as “natural,” even though the standards for organic labeling are much more stringent, said Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for the group.
“The market is flooded with self-proclaimed claims and consumers think they mean something,” said Rangan.
There are labels that involve third-party certification, which convey valid data about farming practices, but others are little more than a logo drawn up by the food manufacturer, she said.
“We’re seeing more and more credible labels, but we’re also seeing more uncredible labels,” Rangan said. “We have a lot of green noise in the marketplace.”
It’s troubling that consumers may believe alternate labels are basically equivalent to organic when they’re actually not, said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group.
Consumers may not realize that foods labeled as “non-GMO” — referring to genetically modified organisms — can still be produced with pesticides and treated sewage, unlike organic goods, Kastel said.
In some cases, the “non-GMO” label is also misleading because the product is made with crops for which no biotech traits are available, he said. “You have people labeling non-GMO watermelon when there is no GMO to be concerned about.”
Despite the uptick in competing claims, Kastel does not believe that organic claims are declining in the overall food industry, which is experiencing growing sales of organic food.
“Organic is still a claim that has some global meaning,” he said.
While some consumers may be uncertain about the difference between organic claims and other labels, those who seek out organic goods probably understand they’re regulated by USDA, said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the Organic Consumers Association.
“I’m not concerned that organic is being edged out of the marketplace by other claims,” she said.
The results of the Mintel restaurant survey, which showed a drop in organic claims on menus, may have been skewed by concerns about labeling rules, Baden-Mayer said.
Restaurateurs may be hesitant to use organic claims if they’re not certified organic as retailers, she said.
“Organic is more heavily regulated than any other claim,” she said.