Millennials Like 'Organic'—Even if They Have No Idea What It Means

Some labels magically make food appear more nutritious.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

In August, The New York Times ran an essay by Sam Tanenhaus that sought to sketch a comprehensive portrait of Millennials. Tanenhaus, who labeled Millennials monolithically as "Generation Nice," devoted some space to discussing the shopping habits of this bold new generation: They're drawn to socially-responsible companies, they're mindful eaters, and they adore all things organic, even the cotton in their clothing. Tanenhaus left one thing out, though: They're easy to manipulate.

To be labeled "organic" in the U.S., a product must comply with a set of environmentally-friendly standards laid out by the United States Department of Agriculture. For the purposes of a consumer, it's easiest to define organic produce by what it isn't: genetically engineered, grown in synthetic soil or with certain pesticides, or allowed to be in contact with "sewage sludge." Organic livestock adheres to similar guidelines, with the additional provision that antibiotics and growth hormones weren't given to the animals.

But, going beyond those basic restrictions, the term "organic" has developed a remarkably benevolent aura in the mind of the consumer. After surveying 300 shoppers who were, for the most part, under the age of 35, the consultancy BFG recently found that 70 percent purchased organic foods, even though only 20 percent actually had any confidence that they could define organic. More than half were "concerned, but confused" about the words used to classify their groceries. BFG's CEO, Kevin Meany, described these young shoppers to Fast Company thusly: "They desire honesty. They want to believe."

300 respondents may seem like a small sample size, but the behavior-knowledge rift is large, and it's backed up by previous research. Some Canadians surveyed in a 2013 study thought that "local" and "organic" denoted the same thing, which suggests that meanings of these two terms have mushed together into a nebulous notion of goodness. That goodness, apparently, suffuses products with the right label. Participants in a study published last year estimated cookies to have 24 percent fewer calories when they were labeled organic. "Organic" cookies were also perceived to be more nutritious. (In reality, organic foods aren't any healthier than other foods in a nutritional sense—it's just that their lack of chemicals is probably healthier in the long run.)

Once a food is cast in the glow of the word organic, consumers will be more willing to pay a premium for it. Those cookies that were estimated to have fewer calories were also valued at a higher price than unlabeled cookies. Potato chips, another food examined in that study, took on a 23 percent premium when labeled "organic." Another study, this one from 2007, indicated that the more affordable an organic product was, the less likely it was to be perceived as nutritious. When people are shopping for organic foods, they apparently take high price tags as evidence that something's worth purchasing.

These numerous opportunities to pump up the price of anything organic or local are probably behind the projection that the organic-food market will grow 14 percent each year until 2018. Forecasts like this have caused big, old-school food companies—exactly the sort of suspect companies that Tanenhaus said Millennials usually avoid—to lumber over into the organic world. As The New York Times pointed out in 2012, larger corporations have snapped up smaller organic brands: Kellogg owns Bear Naked and Kashi, PepsiCo owns Naked Juice, and a company once affiliated with Heinz owns Spectrum Organics. Put an organic label on it, and any company looks good—especially to Millennials.