The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Organic Terms Confuse Shoppers

Organic Terms Confuse Shoppers


April 27, 2008

Organic Terms Confuse Shoppers
Sixty-one percent of United Kingdom consumers are confused by organic “jargon,” according to a recent study. The study, conducted by Whole Earth Foods, one of the first organic companies in the UK, surveyed 1,000 shoppers about their perceptions of words used to market organics. Results indicate that many of the terms are baffling (and possibly off-putting) to shoppers.
“We were noticing the confusion out there amongst consumers in the media with regards organic foods and wanted to better understand the situation,” says Michelle Constantinou, Senior Brand Manager for Whole Earth Foods. “We were surprised at just how widespread this underlying confusion went.”  
Even though more than half of respondents (52%) believe organic food is better for you than non-organics, 37% admit that they have never bought organic because of confusing packaging lingo. For example, when it comes to the term “macrobiotic,” 46% think it is a type of bacteria; one percent believes it is a tiny robot. Seven percent think the term “genetically modified” describes a food filled with additives; five percent believe it describes a food grown in a lab.
In fact, even the word “organic” seems to be a problem for consumers. While 23% of respondents say organic foods are healthy, they are vague on the reasons as to why this is the case. Twenty-one percent believe organic foods are foods produced by a small company. An additional seven percent believe that if food is unwashed, it is automatically considered organic. 
Yet another item that perplexes shoppers is the term “sustainable.” Shoppers acknowledge that they have heard the term repeatedly in the news, but 13% of them are convinced that sustainable food is food that lasts longer in the refrigerator. Clearly, more education is needed to debunk these myths, and shoppers wholeheartedly agree. Forty-four percent of them think organic suppliers should regulate their labeling to make the benefits of organics more apparent.
“The fact that people don’t understand the organic market is worrisome, not just because it has been proven that organic food is healthier and better for the planet, but also because we can’t make informed decisions about what we’re eating if we don’t understand it,” says Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods. “By demystifying the market, we can give people the chance to decide for themselves.”
To help consumers better comprehend organic terms, Whole Earth Foods has developed what they call a “jargon buster” – a set of terms and definitions that are easily accessible on their website and designed to assist consumers in decoding terms readily found in the organic marketplace. So far, response to the list has been extremely encouraging.
“The ‘jargon buster’ has helped us to interact with consumers and to build some stronger relationships with key health and nutrition media,” says Constantinou. “We are getting positive feedback from people which is a great sign that we have helped inform consumers while getting them involved the growing organic debate.”
Here’s a look at some of the “big-ticket” items:
Organic: foods that are produced without the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified ingredients or food additives.
Natural: foods that do not contain artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. Natural foods do not include ingredients such as refined sugars, refined flours, milled grains, hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, artificial food colors, or artificial flavorings.
Whole foods: foods that are unprocessed and unrefined. For example, nuts, seeds, sprouts and raw organic vegetables.
Free-range: a method of farming where animals are allowed to roam freely rather than being contained in any way.
Macrobiotic: a diet based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Biodiversity: the number of different plant and animal species in a defined area.
Sustainable foods: food grown in a way that maintains or enhances soil fertility for the benefit of future generations.
Crop rotation: the practice of planting different crops on the same land over sequential years to improve soil fertility and help control insects, weeds and disease.
Cover cropping: Plants grown to maintain the quality of the soil and prevent erosion.
Composting: the controlled decomposition of organic matter, which is performed primarily by aerobic bacteria, helped by larger creatures such as worms. 
Mulching: covering the ground around plants with organic matter or plastic sheets to suppress weed growth.

For definitions of more organic terms, visit the “Green Stuff” section of the Whole Earth Foods website at:


For the USDA's definition of organic, visit