Target and Walmart—synonymous with super discounted prices on everything from soap and cereal to side tables—recently announced an expansion of their organic and natural offerings, especially in the food category. (Within 24 hours of each other, no less.)
Target unveiled their Made to Matter collection of packaged goods, including brands they currently carry—such as Method, Horizon Organic, Yes To, Kashi, and Annie’s—but with new, exclusive products such an air freshener actually powered by air (as opposed to aerosol). “We noticed from our research that the Target consumer wants organic and natural products, but they are usually more expensive,” says Jessica Stevens, a Target spokesperson. “This makes it easier to find better-for-you options.” Items are already in stores.
For similar reasons, Walmart says it will start carrying Wild Oats, an almost-entirely-organic label previously owned by Whole Foods (can you say “halo effect”?). It will stock about 100 different products at prices at least 25 percent cheaper than its competitors. Expect to see them in about 2,000 stores nationwide soon. (We reached out to Walmart for further details, but we didn’t hear back after several attempts.)
Making natural and organic food available to more people is being viewed as a national game-changer. It’s a boon for those without a nearby Whole Foods (or a Whole Foods budget), and it’s appealing to food advocates, including the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “The news from Walmart and Target means that American consumers will have more access to organic food—and that’s a good thing,” says Heather White, EWG’s executive director.
Because of the scale of these stores, Vani Hari, a consumer advocate and the founder of Food Babe, says “not only will millions more people now have access, [this development] will likely create even more demand for organic food, which will help grow the organic food industry.”
Collectively, Target’s and Walmart’s plans could change the landscape of organics in the country. But with these major developments come some big questions—namely how a mega-store mentality meshes with the country’s existing organic playbook. And there’s concern over the origins of organic foods sold at big-box stores, and whether the world’s largest grocers might put pressure on the organic standards currently in place.
So, how will these changes affect you? Here’s what experts say you should know when shopping for organic and natural products at these superstores:
1. Compare labels As more people start to see organic foods offered at their local stores, understanding what’s really in our food will become easier, says Hari. “There’s a big difference between organic food and conventional food and many people are unaware of this, because they’ve only had access to conventional food.”
Label reading can inspire clean eating Ah-ha! moments for people, she says. “For example, organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides, produced without artificial flavors and colors, antibiotics, growth hormone, trans fats, and other very controversial preservatives and fillers. Being able to compare the ingredient lists on organic food against conventional food, side by side in the store, will help consumers understand why organic food is so much healthier,” Hari explains.
2. How to tell if items are really organic Initially, Walmart will only carry packaged organic goods such as tomato paste, chicken broth, and applesauce cups—not fresh produce. Most of the Wild Oats goods are emblazoned with the USDA Organic stamp, and this has checks and balances starting at the farm all the way to the label. “If they’re using the seal, it’s either 95% or 100% organic,” says Max Goldberg, an authority on organic foods.
Goldberg advises to use caution with Target’s collection. “Hopefully, consumers don’t believe that all the brands are organic, because they’re not,” Goldberg says. While the company isn’t marketing the Made to Matter collection in this way, but rather as “natural, organic and sustainable,” it could still be confusing to customers who aren’t 100 percent clear on the distinctions. Kashi, for example, has some organic offerings, as well as food with controversial, genetically modified ingredients. Target is also stocking beauty products under the new collection that vary greatly in their purity.
3. Read the ingredient list, not just the front of the package Don’t be wooed by the alluring products names and verbiage on the front of packaged foods. Flip it over and “read the ingredients,” says Alexandra Jamieson, a food activist and expert on reading nutrition labels. “The old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is true for organic food, too—you can’t judge a food by the graphics on the label!”
It’s especially important to scan the ingredient list when you’re buying “corporate organic” —or products made by smaller companies that have been bought out by larger ones, Jamieson adds. “Sometimes reformulations will hit the shelves and look just like the old version. New labels may say ‘all natural’ or ‘natural’ but those terms are misleading and do NOT mean it’s organic,” she says.
4. Be aware of private-labeling That Walmart and Target have created their own private label brands, such as Wild Oats and Target’s Simply Balanced, is a red flag for Hari. (In private labeling, someone else manufactures the goods.) “As someone who cares deeply about supporting the right companies and voting with my dollars, not knowing the source of their manufacturer(s) is concerning. Buying organic food is about transparency—knowing where your food is coming from and how it’s produced—and using private label ‘brands’ keeps these facts secret from the consumer.”
5. Note that not all USDA certified organic foods are grown in the U.S. Any product labeled as “organic” must meet USDA organic standards, but it could be grown anywhere from Topeka to Turkey, says Goldberg. There are now about 30,000 organic farms and processing facilities certified to the USDA organic standards world-over. While any store may stock organics grown elsewhere, Goldberg is concerned that Walmart in particular won’t be able to resist the cheapest option, which is often China. “There have been serious safety issues with products from China, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable with trusting organics from there at this time.”
6. Keep an eye open for legislation affecting your organic groceries Goldberg worries that big box stores selling organic foods might affect the organic laws we have in place: “If you have a company like Walmart getting into this, are they going to put pressure on the organic standards? Are the standards going to weaken? Jamieson says it’s all about playing watchdog: “If we really care about organic standards—we have to keep an eye on what these companies do.”
The takeaway More organic products, in more stores, is a healthier thing. “If you can’t get organic food in your community,” Jamieson says, “and Walmart is carrying organic apples and kale, you should buy them!” And in the meantime, Goldberg thinks the people have spoken, “This is what people want,” he says. “People wake up and they look forward to eating their organic breakfast. People don’t wake up looking forward to eating a genetically-modified breakfast.” —Molly Gallagher and Melisse Gelula