I Need...Organic Food

>> Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yesterday, I listed reasons why you should think about adding more organic foods to your grocery cart, and today I'm going to give some suggestions for how to get started. As I've said before, I don't think you can suddenly wake up one morning, snap your fingers, and say, "Voila! I'm green!" Going green is a process, and you can take it slowly if you need to.

Certified Organic Defined

So first of all, what does that organic label mean? The USDA has defined organic crops as those "raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The NOP [National Organic Program] regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling."

For animal farms to be certified organic, the animals "must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."

A couple other things to note:

  • Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients.
  • Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
  • Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.

What Certified Organic Does Not Mean

As I said yesterday, the system for certifying organics is not perfect. The purpose is to protect the consumer, so you know what you're purchasing when you see the "organic" label. But the organics program is mainly concerned with health issues and is less concerned with sustainability or other environmental issues. For instance:
  • Certified organic is not the same as grass-fed or pastured. Animals on certified organic farms must be given "access" to the outdoors, but the form or amount of that access is vague.
  • Certified organic does not mean small farm. Becoming certified is costly, which means that many small farmers are financially excluded from certification.
  • Certified organic farmers can only use certified seed, so their options about varieties to grow are limited. People who prefer heirloom varieties are probably not going to find much choice when shopping for certified organics.
  • Certified organic restricts the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers but does not provide specific guidelines for sustainable farming practices.
Because of these and other considerations, I think it's less important to look at the label and more important to know your farmer. Ask the farmers at your local farmers market about their methods for pest management and fertilization, and make an informed decision, even if they're not certified.

Another option is to look for the label "Certified Naturally Grown," a certification system created by a non-profit in New York focusing on small organic farmers but following the same standards as the USDA program.

Now that You're Ready to Go Shopping...

  • Start with the Dirty Dozen. According to the Environmental Working Group, these are the fruits and vegetables that have the highest pesticide residue. They include peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes.
  • Look for organic baby food. Studies have indicated that young children, and especially babies, are more susceptible to the negative effects of pesticide exposure than adults.
  • Switch your animal products to organic. Levels of chemical toxicity get more concentrated the higher you get up the food chain. Additionally, factory-farm produced meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs are full of extra yuckies like antibiotics and hormones. For more information about dairy and eggs, check out my posts I Need...Dairy and I Need...Eggs.

Tips for the Budget-Conscious

The steps I listed above are prioritized by pesticide exposure and other health concerns. However, if health is not your primary reason for choosing organics and you are on a limited budget, here are some alternate suggestions and observations:
  • Produce: Often, organic fruits and vegetables on sale can rival the cost of conventionally grown produce. If you're on a limited budget, keep your eye out for sales on organics since often they aren't included in the sales flier.
  • Beans, Rice, and Oats: Organic beans, rice, and oats from the bulk bins at a health food store or Whole Foods are similar in price to their conventionally grown counterparts elsewhere, and in many cases they are cheaper. So although from a health standpoint, buying the organic versions of these products might be a low priority, you can actually switch to organics very painlessly in these categories.
  • Meat, Dairy, and Eggs: Organic meat, dairy, and eggs can be double the cost of their conventional counterparts. This is a larger price gap than I've noticed between any other organic products, and while I think it's important to purchase these products, if your budget is limited, you might want to save the organic switch in this category for last.
In a few days, I'll provide some more tips for the Budget Conscious.

Where I'm At

Most of the items on my grocery list now carry the "organic" label. I could do better with produce, but very few of the farmers at my local farmer's market carry organic produce, and I have decided it's more important to me to support my local farmers when I can than to buy organic. If I buy it at the grocery store, it's organic.

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Daphne Spurlock June 26, 2009 at 11:01 PM  

Hi! My name is Daphne and I just want to thank you for the helpful information that you have on organic foods. As for me, I also believe going organic is the best way to go. Do to the fact tha it has a higher nutritional value than conventional foods. I also have a website


Erin aka Conscious Shopper June 27, 2009 at 8:49 AM  

Daphne - Thanks for visiting! It's always great to have more people encouraging others to go organic. Good luck with your website!

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