One of the last supermarket holdouts is holding back on organics no longer.

No-frills grocery chain Aldi has added certified organic produce in five divisions across the country, including in the Twin Cities.

The privately held German company started introducing an organic line of packaged products in September in other areas and brought it to 46 stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa this month, said Bob Herbst, director of purchasing for the Midwest division.

Becky Balder of Bloomington said last week that she was happy to see Aldi adding an organic selection. "It means a lot that organic is cheaper there," she said.

The launch comes at a time when supermarkets have seen organic sales rise faster than the general food market. In 2011, organic food sales grew 9.4 percent to $31.5 billion, while the total U.S. food market grew 4.7 percent to $703.4 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

Many stores are still seeing single- or double-digit growth in organic sales. In 2012, Cub Foods saw organic sales increase 7 percent, the Wedge Co-op increased by 9 percent, and Lunds/Byerly's and Roundy's, which owns Rainbow, had double-digit increases, according to representatives from those operations.

"This shows a changing trend toward organics," said David Livingston, a Wisconsin-based supermarket consultant. "It's one of the fastest-growing segments in the food industry."

The growth is occurring in spite of a report last year from Stanford University indicating no significant differences in the vitamin content of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables.

"I don't think the nutritional study had any impact on people's buying habits," said Josh Resnik, CEO at the Wedge in Minneapolis. "Sales are rising because people recognize the benefits of fewer chemicals being used and the health of our farmers and growers," he said.

Still, organic food sales represented just over 4 percent of all U.S. food sales in 2011, up only a bit from 2010, according to OTA's survey. Although 76 percent of families buy organic at least occasionally, only 26 percent of Americans regularly buy organic food, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll.

Many people skip the organic section because prices are 10 percent to three times more expensive than conventional.

But the choice is more than price alone. A lot of it is perception, said Livingston. "If people think organic looks, feels or tastes better, they'll buy it."

Still, Aldi shopper Judy Holmes of Richfield said she rarely buys organic because of the price. "I prefer to buy local at farmers markets when they're in season," she said.

In a Star Tribune price comparison last week, Aldi's prices were up to 40 percent less than at several other supermarkets. Looking at five sample items, Aldi's prices were 8 percent less than Trader Joe's and 35 to 40 percent less than at Cub, Lunds, SuperTarget and the Wedge.

There are two Aldi companies, which were separated in the 1960s by brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht. Aldi South owns all of the nearly 1,200 Aldi stores in the United States and nearly 3,300 more throughout the world. Aldi North owns all Trader Joe's stores and more than 5,000 Aldi stores worldwide but no U.S. Aldi stores.

Aldi's Herbst said organics will be on the shelf for at least six months as a test.

Earlier this month, the company tested its new Simply Nature line in Minnesota, including a mixture of all-natural and organic packaged items such as pizza, cereal, snacks, cheese, apple juice and olive oil.

Just as prices vary, so do quality and sourcing. Aldi has said in its advertisements that many grocery store staples come from the same source. While it's difficult for customers to know sourcing of private-label products, produce is easier. Two of the five organic produce items available at Aldi--grape tomatoes and Gala apples--came from the same grower that supplies Cub, Lunds and Target.

In addition to the Twin Cities, Aldi is also testing organic produce in markets in Georgia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633