I was recently dispatched to a Target to buy some Goldfish, which was a more daunting task than you might imagine.
There are now more than 30 Goldfish varieties. You’ve got your Whole Grain Pretzel, your Vanilla Cupcake, your Flavor Blasted® Kick It Up a Nacho. There are red ones and green ones and also the baby Goldfish.
I played it safe, settling on regular Cheddar Goldfish ($2.99 for 10 ounces) and another Cheddar variety emblazoned prominently with the words “Made With Organic Wheat” ($3.99 for eight ounces).
That’s right, even Goldfish have gone organic. Sort of. Had I not recently sat on my reading glasses, I might’ve noticed a line at the bottom of the organic wheat Goldfish that said, “These crackers are 70% organic.”
Seventy percent organic?
The organic movement started out in the last century as an alternative to industrial agriculture, a vision of family farms, green fields and co-ops, and has now led us to 70 percent organic Goldfish. Along the way, it became largely co-opted by giant agribusinesses. Stalwart organic brands like Cascadian Farm and Kashi were taken over by General Mills and Kellogg respectively.
That does not mean it’s entirely a marketing gimmick. The United States Department of Agriculture began regulating organic foods in 2002. Organic crops are supposed to be grown without genetic modifications or synthetic pesticides and other synthetic additives, though there are exceptions. Organic livestock is raised without antibiotics.
While regulators give out a “U.S.D.A. Organic” label, Goldfish don’t qualify. Still, you are allowed to say a product features an organic ingredient as long as it “contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water).”
The Campbell Soup Company, which owns the Goldfish brand, started selling three kinds of Goldfish with organic ingredients in 2016. Chris Foley, chief marketing officer at Pepperidge Farm, a division of Campbell’s, said organic was a natural fit for the brand.
“I think Goldfish start from a very healthy place,” he said. (We’ll set aside that this is a brand that offers flavors like S’mores and Cookies & Cream.) “We have no artificial flavors and preservatives. It’s 100 percent real cheese. We source our colors from real plants.”
The move into organic was driven by market research.
“We’re always listening to our moms — that’s our primary buyer,” Mr. Foley said. “Certainly there are more moms looking for more organic options.”
Moms aside, there’s an elephant in the room we have not addressed.
Or, to be more accurate, a bunny.
The advent of 70 percent organic Goldfish almost certainly has something to do with the rise of Cheddar Bunnies, made by Annie’s Homegrown, which General Mills acquired in 2014. One blog for moms declared Cheddar Bunnies “the Goldfish of this generation” in 2015, the kind of sentiment that probably didn’t sit well at Campbell.
Organic Goldfish appear to emulate Cheddar Bunnies, which debuted in 2003. Both are made with organic wheat and are 70 percent organic. Annie’s did also start selling a fully organic, U.S.D.A.-certified variety of Cheddar Bunnies in 2008, though the lesser organic variety remains the flagship.
Going 70 percent organic limits additives like autolyzed yeast extract, “which provides savory background flavor notes” to Cheddar Goldfish but is left out of organic wheat Goldfish, Campbell said. Going fully organic would require further paring of the industrial pantry, and might be a distinction lost on many consumers anyway.
In response to questions about its view of Goldfish, Annie’s took the high road. In a statement, the company said, “We believe that organic food is good for people and the planet we all share, so we’re always excited to see increased access to organic options for consumers.”
I went back to Campbell and asked if Annie’s had anything to do with organic Goldfish. Mr. Foley held to his position. In an email, he said the decision “was about listening to our customers: moms going up and down supermarket aisles searching for ‘better for you’ options.”
Now that we’ve caught up on Big Food’s chess match over salty animal crackers, does any of this matter? Is organic healthier?
While organic crops are not pesticide free, peer-reviewed studies have found they have fewer pesticide residues than conventional crops. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that the pesticide residues found on almost all crops are within acceptable tolerances. But debate on the topic continues.
“Existing data shows that when we eat organically, we reduce our pesticide exposure,” said Cynthia Curl, an assistant professor at Boise State University who has studied the topic extensively. “Observational studies, while not conclusive, are consistent with the idea that there may be health benefits from reducing pesticide exposure, particularly during pregnancy. But the science simply isn’t there to say for sure.”
Meanwhile, I’ll keep chomping my way through my own research. When I’m stuffing my face with organic wheat Goldfish, or regular Cheddar Bunnies, I now know to feel 70 percent better about myself than if I were eating regular Goldfish, but 30 percent worse than if I were gobbling up the U.S.D.A.-certified organic Cheddar Bunnies. And I haven’t tried the Flavor Blasted® Kick It Up a Nacho Goldfish, but I think there’d be some guilt involved.
For the big food manufacturers, organic simply fills another market niche. I asked Mr. Foley if Goldfish with organic wheat was any healthier than the regular kind, a tricky question for an executive at a large food company to answer.
“It’s an alternative,” he said.