Professors’ Research Offers a Plate of Surprises

Monday, February 7, 2011

PHILADELPHIA (February 7, 2011) - For many people, eating organic food is more than a culinary preference - it’s a carefully calculated lifestyle choice. Organic products typically cost 10 to 40 percent more than similar conventionally produced products, making this lifestyle choice expensive. But how organic are these products?

A research team from the Haub School says consumers are often duped into purchasing foods they believe are organic, when in reality, only a percentage of the ingredients are organically produced.

With support from a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant, graduate food marketing student Debra Van Camp ’11 partnered with C.J. McNutt Chair of Food Marketing Neal Hooker, Ph.D., to research how federal regulations affect food labeling of processed organic foods. Their research paper, “The Paradox of Organic Ingredients,” was published in the Fall 2010 issue of Food Technology.

Van Camp and Hooker’s research centers around the debate about the “National List of Certified Organic Ingredients” developed by the USDA’s National Organic Program in 2002. The list identifies all methods, contact materials and ingredients used in the production of organic foods. The final section of this list outlines “nonorganically produced agricultural products allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as ‘organic’.” This section is the subject of the pair’s research.

“The original thinking behind the establishment of the USDA’s National List was that it would allow for a wide range of USDA certified organic foods to come to market without being restricted by scarcity of minor ingredients,” explains Hooker. “However, this has not been the case.”

Hooker and Van Camp found that the National List stifles innovation in organic supply.

“The central reason for including an ingredient in the National List is that the ingredient is commercially unavailable in organic form,” explains Van Camp. “So while there are viable organic alternatives for many of these products – like corn starch or lecithin – the burden is on the farmer or producer of these products to prove the ingredients are commercially available.”

She says manufacturers of organic foods aren’t pressing the issue, because consumer purchasing behavior shows that people aren’t concerned with just how organic their product is…only that it’s labeled “organic.”

However, Hooker and Van Camp blame inaccurate food marketing for misleading consumers. They offer the following advice to consumers interested in learning more about the ingredients used in products on supermarket shelves marketed as “organic.”

  • Look for the USDA Organic label. Products certified 95 percent or more organic use this seal.
  • Clarify the label’s claim. When a manufacturer displays “made with organic ingredients,” what they are saying is that their product contains 70 percent or more organic ingredients.
  • “Natural” is not organic. This label can be misleading; only foods with the USDA Organic seal are certified as organic.
  • Read the ingredients. Ingredients are listed according to quantity used.

Media Contact

Carolyn Steigleman ’10 (M.A.), Director of Haub School of Business Communications,, 610-660-1355

Expand this section