While ethical and environmental concerns have played a role in the phenomenal growth of the organic sector, which was valued at GBP1.6bn (US$3.05bn) in 2005, the rising popularity of organics is principally linked to concerns over food safety, health and perceived taste benefits.

According to a new report by independent market analyst Datamonitor, buying organic food is not typically an altruistic act, and the growth of the sector is connected to the growing trend for healthy eating among consumers. Datamonitor suggests that market development will continue to be strong in both Europe and the US for the next five years, with the UK sector expected to reach GBP2.7bn by 2010 - more than four times its value in 2000.

"With three out of four UK consumers doing more to eat healthily over the past year, consumers increasingly switch to healthy alternatives. Organics are emerging as a credible healthy eating alternative, irrespective of the credence surrounding that perception," comments Daniel Bone, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor and report author. 
 
Datamonitor's survey finds that German consumers  are most likely to link organic and health, with 66% believing that eating organic is an important part of maintaining a healthy diet. It is no coincidence, Datamonitor suggests, that the German market - valued at GBP3.5bn in 2005 - is the most developed in Europe.

Consumers across Europe are increasingly concerned about eating processed foods, with one in four UK consumers stating that reducing their consumption of processed foods was "very important" to maintain a healthy diet and nearly two-thirds of respondents suggesting it was important.

European and US consumers alike considered the most important route to a healthy diet was the consumption of fresh foods, Datamonitor found. 

"Freshness is not just associated with healthy eating but also with enhanced sensory quality and therefore superior enjoyment. This is a refreshing change in today's environment where marketing of low fat, low salt, low sugar, zero calories options has perpetuated a slightly negative message about eating and drinking," Bone said.

By focusing on freshness, Bone contended, food manufacturers can engage more fully with consumers and harness positive attitudes towards food products.  "Marketers can focus on the emotionally appealing sensory properties of fresh products rather than all the bad content that's been removed. Fresh, unprocessed or minimally-processed foods have strong potential to be the next major growth area", Bone concluded.