AS THE ORGANICS CATEGORY GETS INCREASINGLY HOT, THE CUSTOMER BASE IS BECOMING MORE AND MORE DIVERSE. This not only creates opportunities for immediate sales but will also drive product creation, category expansion and allow for changing purchasing motivations.

Increasing Hispanic Influence
Latino Americans, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., have emerged as core organic consumers, defined by market research firm The Hartman Group Inc. as those most actively and intensely involved in the world of organics, purchasing products across multiple categories and embracing more of a total organic lifestyle. Michelle Barry, senior vice president, The Hartman Group, Inc., notes that "retailers need to be aware that there is a significant portion of the population who may be more prone to look at organics in a different light."

For example, close connections to the land and the authenticity of its products are an ingrained part of Latino culture, making this group more apt to purchase organic items in several categories, especially perishables. Hartman Group found that among Latinos who have strong connections to a Mexican ancestry, for example, many purchase organic produce because it looks similar to the offerings available at Mexican produce stands.

Likewise, although not core organic users, Asian Americans, as well as African Americans, report consistent high-purchase patterns of organic produce and soy products. This isn't surprising when you realize that almost three-quarters of the U.S. population report occasional consumption of organic foods or beverages.

Hartman Group notes that there is opportunity to connect with groups through targeted messaging that resonates on a cultural level. For example, among Latinos, motivations for buying organics include supporting the environment, avoiding pesticides and genetically modified foods and championing better treatment of farm animals. The culturally strong concern for family is also a driver:
•65 percent of Latino organic users with very young children (under age 5) are core organic users (compared to 30 percent among those without small children).
•57 percent of Latino organic users with young children (under age 10) use organics daily, compared to only 17 percent among those without young children.

The Premium Appeal
Although fresh fruits and vegetables reign supreme with core organic shoppers, the surge of packaged high-quality organic foods such as boxed macaroni and cheese, pasta sauces and salsa as well as frozen fruits, vegetables and entrées, is a point of interest. Packaged foods with an ethnic bent offer a point of differentiation and flavor profiles that can cross cultures.

Generally speaking, ethnic foods appeal to a cross-section of shoppers, thanks to international travel and exposure to other cultures. According to the 2007 Specialty Food Magazine's Today's Specialty Food Consumer report, of 1,092 specialty food consumers surveyed, 61 percent reported buying Hispanic products, and 55 percent said they buy Asian products.

"People are curious about ethnic ingredients, but don't know what to do with them," says market research firm Mintel International's Senior Analyst Marcia Mogleonsky. "Ethnic ready-to-eat meals and packaged foods have become a hit among consumers."

The Organic Trade Association puts sales of organic, including ethnic, packaged foods at $2.4 million, up 14 percent over 2006 sales of about $2 million. Among recent rollouts, organic and natural packaged foods maker Kashi®' has launched a line of all-natural frozen meals with an ethnic twist, including its vegan Black Bean Mango dish, which features black beans, roasted red onions, green and red peppers and carrots served over Kashi's 7 Whole Grains Rice Pilaf and topped with fire-roasted mango sauce. "Kashi is an example of forward thinking; Amy's Kitchen, as well, is very imaginative with their frozen pizza flavors," says Mogelonsky.

International flavors aren't the main draw however. Research points to a variety of ethnicities as purchasing organics as "part of their connections to the larger world of wellness."

In addition, "a shopper with strong Latino roots would buy organic products because these food categories are perceived as premium," says Hartman Group's Senior Communications Associate David Wright.

Barry agrees and suggests that retailers update their marketing strategies to tap into a wider range of organic buying motivations beyond health and wellness. "There is a larger consumer shift in what defines high-quality [foods]; organics is one of the markers for flavor distinction, quality and unique product differentiation."

Brenda Porter is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of Organic Products Retailer.