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What Makes Food Organic?: The Twinkie Problem

what makes food organic?: the twinkie problem In the 1990s, a theoretical debate engulfed the organic food world as it grew from a movement into an industry: Could a Twinkie be certified organic?

Click for Harvey Hartman's Experiences vs. Products: What is the Value of Organics?

One group of industry-minded partisans argued, "yes." If the ingredients were produced organically than the Twinkie - or anything else - could be organic. Others, who looked to organic food as inherently whole and nutritious, argued, "no." Even if the ingredients were organic, the Twinkie would be so far from what "organic food" meant that the product would render the word meaningless. So who was right? Technically, the first camp. If a food manufacturer could substitute organic ingredients for the conventional ones in a Twinkie, then indeed the Twinkie could qualify for the USDA Organic label. After all, even tobacco can be grown organically, something I realized in Wisconsin, where I actually saw organic dairy farmers grow the stuff. But the Twinkie problem doesn't end there, for although it has been a decade since this debate split the organic world, the Organic Twinkie has never been made. In the real world, where consumers buy products, this one didn't make a lot of sense. So, practically speaking, the second camp was right: an Organic Twinkie was meaningless. With 500 million ordinary Twinkies flying off the shelves each year, and customers inventing Twinkie wedding cakes and Twinkie Sushi, why even try?

What this shows is that the word "organic" works on some products but not on others - an observation that becomes more pertinent the further you move away from whole, raw or fresh food. Look where organic began: in fresh produce, grains and later milk.

Researching the evolution of the organic food over the past couple of years, I found the most successful organic products were usually familiar to consumers, but also unique. And that uniqueness - what differentiated these products in the market - was found in the food, its source or the packaging.

Recall, it wasn't a head of organic iceberg lettuce that took the produce section by storm over the past decade but washed and ready-to-use baby salad greens in a bag. This product, introduced first by small organic farmers and then packaged in a bag by an organic food company, Earthbound Farm, altered the salad industry... Familiar but unique.

In the past few years, small artisan companies have also offered a plethora of organic chocolates. These are not Hershey's Kisses. They are Organic Fair Trade dark chocolate bars made from beans cultivated in small Central American farming co-ops that help support endangered species and the environment. They look and taste different from a candy bar, yet they are still candy. Why do these products work while an Organic Twinkie does not? Because of their association with an artisan experience and their attendant values, which creates a justifiable, organic indulgence rather than a junk-food snack.

But, the skeptics will say, "That's not true of every organic product. There have been home runs where the product itself was the mirror image of conventional food. Take milk. Sold in a carton. It's white. Organic milk tastes and looks like ... milk." I beg to differ. People aren't only buying the milk. Or even primarily the milk. They are buying milk that is "produced without antibiotics and hormones." (It's often highlighted on the carton, if we didn't get the point right off the bat). When it comes to milk, this avoidance of certain substances has real value, because it enhances the perceived healthfulness and wholesomeness of the product. Its value can also be reinforced by the farm on which it was produced, which is why large-scale organic dairy farms have come under such heat lately. The confined feedlot tussles with a vision of an ideal organic farm - you might not taste the difference but it's important enough that some consumers will parse organic milk by producer and avoid feedlot milk. All these extra-culinary dimensions help define the product. This is especially true of fresh, tactile food that sits naked until you pop it in your mouth.

So why don't these factors work for an organic Twinkie? The organic version wouldn't have pesticides. You'd get the same kind of avoidance quotient. True, but organic doesn't work for a Twinkie for the same reason organic doesn't work (for most consumers) with tobacco. The "organic-ness" does nothing to enhance the underlying qualities of the Twinkie - it's sweet, creamy, snack food appeal. In short, the Organic Twinkie is, like a healthy cigarette, an oxymoron. You might be able to engineer it but it would be of questionable value to the consumer.

As the organic food sector grows, many companies will reformulate their existing products with organic ingredients. That's way easier than inventing unique products. Plus, the successful organic food companies have been gobbled up, so it's tough to buy into the market. While these mirror-image products may succeed, and even come to define the organic marketplace, they also run the risk of eroding the identity consumers have come to expect from organic food. "For a long time it seemed very simple," one shopper told the New York Times recently. "Organic was good. Farmers' markets were good. Everything else was not good. Now I don't know how to choose anything. Is it local? Is it sustainable? Is it organic? Which is better? I don't know."

The rise of mirror-image products will add to this sense of confusion. While this identity crisis creates a problem for consumers, it may represent something else for business: a risk. But for those trying to create familiar yet unique, organic products, it may be something else again: an opportunity to stand out from the pack.


Guest writer Samuel Fromartz, a business journalist, is author of the recently published "Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew." Background and excerpts are at The views in this article are his own and do not represent those of the Hartman Group, Inc..


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