timer3 minAugust 2021

Organic products enjoy a good reputation. But are environmentally friendly products really one step ahead in terms of flavour, health and sustainability? MPULSE offers an overview of the organic jungle.

Organic production is booming. In Germany, sales of organically produced goods amounted to approximately €15 billion in 2020 – around 22% more than the previous year, according to a report from the Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft (BÖLW) [German organic food producers’ association]. Popular products included meat as well as fruit and vegetables. The signs of growth are also visible around the world. In 2019, Europeans spent an average of 8% more on organic products than in the previous year.

According to the Ökobarometer 2020 survey, commissioned each year by the German Government to investigate organic consumption, people buy organic food products for three main reasons: animal welfare, eating food produced as naturally as possible and regionality. Survey respondents also wanted a healthy diet, fewer additives and lower pesticide residues.

Favourite sources for organc fans

Most consumers – 68% to be precise – buy their organic products in the supermarket, followed by discounters, weekly markets, organic supermarkets, farm shops and health food shops. This was the finding of a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Retailers and wholesalers often offer organically produced products under their own brand. For example, METRO lists more than 500 organic products worldwide in its own-brand range – of these, the wholesaler has developed 100 items internationally and 400 regionally. ‘As our own brands represent local specialities, the number of organic products varies from country to country,’ reports Jens Bresler, Head of Own Brands Hospitality & Packaging. ‘In each case, the items are tailored precisely to the needs of our customers and are designed in conjunction with restaurateurs and retailers. This means that new items are continually being added as we find out more about the increasing significance of organic products in the HoReCa sector.’


The confusion about organic terminology


People wanting to buy organic products are faced with a variety of different terms – from ‘all-natural’ to ‘environmentally friendly’ to ‘unprocessed’. However, according to EU regulations, only foods that meet the minimum standards for organic agriculture (German) can be labelled ‘organic’. These products bear the EU organic logo on the packaging – a stylised leaf on a green background. Producers can also opt to add the hexagonal German organic logo on certain products; this requires advance registration. Key features of both logos are the best possible animal welfare standards and the avoidance of chemical-synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

There are also a number of other labels, for example from organic farming associations such as Bioland or Demeter, that set stricter requirements on certain points than the EU organic standard. Around the world, the most relevant ‘organic’ logo is the one awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture, with the organic standards of the USA and the EU mutually recognised as equal. There are differences, however. For example, antibiotics are prohibited in organic livestock farming in the USA but are permitted under certain circumstances in Europe, such as when alternative therapies remain unsuccessful. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that 55% of German citizens trust organic quality logos – which conversely means that almost half are sceptical.

Are organic products really healthy?

Many consumers rely on organic products because they see a healthy diet as important. But are organic products really better for physical and mental well-being? The Bundeszentrum für Ernährung (BZFE) [Germany’s nutrition advisory service] says there is some evidence to support this, pointing out that organic products are comparatively low in pesticides. Furthermore, ‘Because they contain less water, organic apples, potatoes and so on contain more nutrients. They also tend to provide more Vitamin C and are significantly richer in phytochemicals (antioxidants) that protect against cancer and cardiovascular diseases.’

However, many studies come to different conclusions. For example, one investigation by Stanford University found no significant evidence that organic food was richer in nutrients or involved a lower risk to health. Germany’s Stiftung Warentest consumer organisation also says that ‘It is not categorically proven whether organic food is healthier.’

Ultimately, a balanced diet is the crucial factor, says science magazine ‘Quarks’ . ‘Generally, a diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables is more beneficial than simply relying on organic products. And anyway, instead of worrying about pesticide residues in food, we should direct our attention to bacteria and fungi because organic products are just as vulnerable to these as conventional foods.’


All a matter of taste


The jury is also out on whether organic products taste better. Many consumers swear by the flavour of organic apples and so on. BZFE says: ‘Because organic farmers forego the use of easily dissolved synthetic fertilisers, fruit and vegetables grow somewhat more slowly. A positive side effect of this is that products contain up to 20% less water so they often have a more intense flavour and a better texture.’ However, blind taste testing by Stiftung Warentest showed that ‘products with an organic logo taste just as good or as mediocre as those without one.’ In both product groups, testers identified certain items that were very rich in flavour: among the organic products, black olives and ham were particularly distinctive, while young Gouda and smoked trout stood out among conventional foods.

Fully sustainable... or is it?

At least in terms of the environment and climate protection, organic products should be one step ahead, right? For many experts it’s clear: organic farming minimises nitrate pollution in rivers, lakes and groundwater. Furthermore, by using organic fertiliser and rotating the crops they grow, organic farmers promote humus formation and soil fertility. Importantly, organic areas are also home to a greater diversity of species, with integrated hedgerows, ponds and meadow orchards providing habitats for a wide variety of plants and animals.

But there are also objections. There is some criticism of the use of copper as a pesticide in organic farming. Similarly, with regard to standards for livestock farming, the EU organic logo has no specific rules for the transport of animals, for example. In another example, a UK study deducted points for climate protection issues. It claimed that, as a result, a 100% move to organic farming in the UK would lead to a rise in CO2 emissions. This is because the lower productivity of organic farming means that, potentially, more food would have to be imported, thereby driving up greenhouse gas emissions. What is more, because of yields that may be lower under some circumstances, organic farming sometimes requires more acreage.


In conclusion, while the organic sector is booming, opinions about health, flavour and sustainability vary. Both organic and conventional products have their strengths and weaknesses. One thing is certain: the organic trend shows that consumers are placing greater value on the source, farming and quality of their food – and appreciation for food and its production is definitely important

Did you know? 6 facts about organic food

1. Small market share

Despite increasing demand, the proportion of organic food on the market in Germany is just 6.4% overall.

2. Limitless growth

Across Europe as a whole, 45 billion euros’ worth of organic food products were sold in 2019, while in countries like France, Spain and Denmark, the market for organics is showing double-digit growth.

3. Anniversary of the organic logo

On 5 September 2021, the hexagonal German organic logo will be 20 years old.

4. Excellent variety

Over 93,000 products and more than 6,000 companies display the national government’s organic logo.

5. Organic farmers on the up

In 2020, there were a total 35,413 organic farms in Germany, equating to around 13.4% of all agricultural businesses.

6. More land wanted

The German Federal Government aims to expand the proportion of land devoted to organic agriculture from today’s figure of around 10% to 20% by 2030.