Jennifer Mellard's journey to federally certified organic food manufacturing began with a somewhat less healthy foray, a custom cake and baked goods shop in Prairieville.
She ran Sweet Sentiments Bakeshop for four years and enjoyed it. But over time, improving her family's health — starting with their diet — became more and more important. Eventually, that concern moved Mellard in a different business direction.
"Being based in Louisiana, there's not a big emphasis on healthy food. But we love the traditions, all of the traditions Louisiana has with great food and family and gatherings for events," Mellard said. "So we wanted to still be able to enjoy those things but in a healthy way."
Now Mellard heads Gold Coast Traditions, an organic food manufacturer in Baton Rouge. The company launched its first product, an organic whole-wheat buttermilk pancake mix, earlier this year. The pancake mix is already in five local stores, and that will grow to a dozen when the products land on Rouses Markets' shelves. Mellard is working on an organic cornbread mix and plans to expand to stores throughout the state and beyond.
Mellard is part of a rapidly growing sector.
Organic foods now make up more than 5 percent of total U.S. food consumption, according to the most recent figures from the Organic Trade Association, which represents more than 9,500 businesses nationwide.
Consumers bought an estimated $47 billion worth of organic products in 2016, with organic foods accounting for $43 billion of that, the trade association says. Ten years ago, consumers bought less than $20 billion worth of organic products.
Although overall food sales and nonorganic food products grew less than 1 percent, organic food sales increased by 8.4 percent and organic nonfood products, such as skin and hair care products, rose by 8.8 percent.
The growth in organic consumption is being driven in large part by millennial parents, people ages 18 to 35, the Organic Trade Association says. Right now, only 25 percent of millennials are parents; in the next decade or so, 80 percent will be.
The impact on the organic market could be "transformative," the trade association says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture strictly regulates "organic" products. To be certified organic, the products have to meet a number of standards.
For example, organic crops must be grown on land that hasn't had prohibited substances, such as synthetic pesticides or herbicides, applied for at least three years before the crop is harvested. In addition, 95 percent of the ingredients used in a product, such as Mellard's pancake batter, must be certified organic, and the ingredients that are not certified have to come from a USDA-approved list.
The USDA has certified 41 Louisiana organic producers, with more than half of those in the New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas. At the end of 2010, 21 Louisiana firms were USDA-certified.
Organic coffee beans now account for about 10 percent of sales for International Coffee Corp., a green coffee importer and wholesaler based in Metairie, said President Matthew Madary. The company began selling organic coffee in the early 1990s, initially because of its West Coast customers' requests.
International Coffee Co. sells to roasters all over the country, Madary said. The company imports beans grown in Peru, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia and Ethiopia, among other countries. The roasters buy the beans, then do their own blending and packaging.
Madary said the volume of organic coffee — both USDA- and Fair Trade-certified organic — has grown tremendously over the past few years.
But he said he isn't sure if that's part of the overall organics growth trend or because some of his competitors don't carry organic beans. He said he thinks it's probably more of the latter.
Some of International Coffee Co.'s organics business comes from roasters who want to lock in a supply several months out, he said.
"But a lot of the increased business we're doing seems to be that somebody calls and says 'Hey, I need some organics. You got anything around?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I have it,' ” Madary said.
International Coffee Co. keeps a dozen or so 40,000-pound containers of mostly Fair Trade organics stashed at public warehouses around the country, Madary said.
Fair Trade is an independent third-party certification organization that requires companies to pay fair prices.
For green coffee beans, that means a minimum price of $1.90 a pound.
Madary said International Coffee Co. began buying Fair Trade organics seven or eight years ago and Fair Trade now accounts for most of its organic sales.
Organics also make up about 10 percent of sales at Owen Biosciences, a Baton Rouge-based maker of topical skin care products and the raw materials used in them.
The company has been in the skin care industry since 1991, said Senior Vice President Dane Lejeune. Owen Biosciences makes organic skin care products and the raw materials that customers like Whole Foods and Sephora use in their skin care lines.
"Obviously, there's a big population that strives to be organic and wants to be sure that not only are the things they are eating free of pesticides but the things they put on their skin," Lejeune said.
Just as obviously, the chemicals applied to fruit or included in skin care products can have "a negative contribution" to skin wellness, he added.
Owen Biosciences Inc. began offering certified organic products about 10 years ago, he said. The company began buying certified organic raw materials from suppliers, then developed its own raw materials, as well as finished products. Owen Biosciences' certified organic products are now sold worldwide.
The challenge with certified organic products is their performance hasn't quite caught up to traditional skin care products, Lejeune said, and ultimately clients want to see results.
"It's been tricky, but we're slowly getting over that. We're slowly getting products that feel and work as well as nonorganic," Lejeune said.
Another challenge for Louisiana organic product makers is finding Louisiana-made certified organic products.
Mellard said it's hard to find a grain farmer in Louisiana, much less one that grows organic wheat.
Owen Biosciences has had success in sourcing Louisiana products.
The company gets the rice protein that helps protect and moisturize skin from Louisiana farmers, Lejeune said. Owen Biosciences also gets some probiotics — bacteria that help soothe inflammation, strengthen skin and reduce acne — from Louisiana.