Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The Changing Linguistics of the Organic Food Market

The Changing Linguistics of the Organic Food Market

Summar Saad

Language continually plays a huge role in marketing strategies of various products, organic food being no exception. With sales reaching $11 billion in 2003, the organic food movement has witnessed a growth, which is closely tied to the language of the label. From its roots in East Asian spirituality to its regulation by governments and agencies around the world, the term ‘organic’ has undergone various changes in meaning ultimately influencing how consumers perceive the label. This paper investigates the changes that have occurred in the linguistics of the organic food market before and after the expansion of the movement, as well as the conceptualization of the label.

Literature was reviewed to uncover the history of the organic definition and its meaning with respect to consumers, producers, and government standards. This was compared to definitions and standards of the ‘all-natural’ label, which is perceived as synonymous to ‘organic’ by consumers. A photo-database of organic labels was collected to analyze the language of the label and its contribution to consumer perceptions. The research found that many of the changes observed in the movement and organic label were influenced by political, economic, and organizational factors and reflect on how the label is perceived. Through the conceptualization of the farm as a living organism, the definition of ‘organic’ has undertaken various meanings with implications related to health, environment, and social consciousness. The term has little association with the semantic meaning and has come to be associated with the pragmatic meaning that includes principles such as sustainability, ‘natural’, and healthy, making it a very flexible mediating device and in turn, marketing strategy. Consequently, the label has been a source of confusion and mistrust; ultimately questioning the very foundation the organic movement was built upon.

Keywords: organic movement, organic label, linguistics

April 16, 2011 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Interesting concept. Such terms as “free Range” and “traditionally raised” conjure a picture of healthy disease – free and pesticide free food. Is the extra cost worth it? Must be or they would not survive. What words are being used by those food producers who are genetically modifying the food chain?

    Comment by Peter Chrisomalis | April 20, 2011 | Reply

    • That is a very interesting question and I would guess that the wording on their labels is not much different than foods that are not genetically modified. The problem is that there is no standard regarding gmo labeling and it’s the producers who don’t use gmos that are distinguishing themselves on the label. For example, Silk clearly states on their container that the soy beans were not genetically engineered. So it seems to me that the shift in labeling is happening on the end of producers that do not use gmos. I assume the others would just use words that give them a low profile like ‘natural’.

      Comment by Summar Saad | April 24, 2011 | Reply

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