Organic Food: What’s Really Worth It
Good Housekeeping magazine features a very favorable piece on organic agriculture and products in its November issue. You can read the full article by clicking here.
Is It Really Healthier?
There’s no question organics are better for plants, animals, farm workers, and the ecosystem. But are they actually healthier for you and your family? There’s a great deal of debate — sometimes partisan, always heated — on nutritional advantages. While research is trending toward showing that organic food has more of certain nutrients, that doesn’t mean the organic tomato you pick from a bin will definitely be richer in these than its conventionally grown cousin at the other end of the aisle. Too many other factors — soil conditions, weather, how the produce was transported and stored — come into play to allow for certainty that any one piece of fruit or vegetable is better for you than another. But there’s an additional issue to consider — namely, safety:
Pesticides: Eating food that’s certified organic means you’re limiting your exposure to the chemicals used to kill plant pests. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticides to ensure that they don’t pose unreasonable risks to our health or to the environment. Still, a number of research scientists are concerned about the types and levels of pesticides allowed in conventional farming. A recent study of 12,000 children, for example, found that those with above-average levels of pesticides in their urine were nearly twice as likely to have ADHD as kids with undetectable levels. Developing brains and nervous systems are the most vulnerable to chemicals, so if you’re pregnant or have young children (especially under age 2), spending more for organic food might be smart. And all families can reduce their risk by peeling fruits and vegetables.
Antibiotics: Conventionally farmed livestock and poultry are routinely given drugs to prevent illness and boost the rate of growth, a practice that has contributed to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Buying organic meat, poultry, and milk means you are assured the animal has never been treated with antibiotics. On nonorganic meat and poultry, labels of “no added antibiotics,” “no antibiotics administered,” and “raised without antibiotics” mean the same thing, though the claims are not as tightly regulated. Milk is strictly regulated, and even nonorganic brands don’t contain a significant level of antibiotics, if any.
Hormones: These are often used to fatten conventionally raised cattle or to enhance milk production. Organic cattle aren’t treated with hormones, and some conventional cattle aren’t either, so if you’re concerned about hormone use, you can choose organic meat and dairy or look for a hormone-free claim on other packages. Hormones aren’t used on pork or poultry, so claims on those items are meaningless.
USDA ORGANIC: What “Organic” Means
Thanks to the USDA National Organic program, it’s less of a labeling free-for-all in the supermarket these days. When you see the circular “USDA Organic” logo on a package, it means that the food was produced according to strict practices that don’t allow the use of synthetic flavors, colors, sweeteners, most preservatives, toxic or long-lasting pesticides and fertilizers, or methods like genetic engineering. Organic farming and production methods also ensure that animals are treated more humanely. Another assurance: Producers of certified organic food are subject to announced and unannounced inspections to make sure farming and manufacturing practices are up to snuff. While timely follow-through has been a problem in the past for the USDA program, major increases in its budget and staff have given it more bite.
Sounds Like Organic, But…
Many people confuse these claims with the real (certified organic) thing. Here’s the lowdown on the lingo
Natural: On meat and poultry, this indicates that no artificial flavorings or colorings were added and that the cut was not irradiated to reduce bacteria, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how the animal was raised. On products outside the meat case, the term is undefined (and unregulated), so it doesn’t mean anything.
Free Range: When you see this term on chicken and eggs, it means that the bird has had access to the outdoors. But the USDA doesn’t regulate how much time chickens must spend there or what kind of surface it must be (it could be cement).
Locally Grown: Can you define “nearby”? Neither can federal regulators — there’s no standard for descriptions of how far food has traveled to reach your store. It’s also important to remember that not all organic food is locally grown, nor is all locally grown food organic — even the vegetables and fruit you see at farmers’ markets.
How to save money shopping for organics
If you’re looking to go organic or if you already have, here are some helpful strategies to save money in the checkout line:
Go organic on produce with the highest levels of pesticides. The “dirty dozen” are a good place to start with your organic produce purchases. Starting with the worst, they are peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce, potatoes. The cleanest 12 are onions, avocados, sweet corn (frozen), pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, sweet peas (frozen), kiwi fruit, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, papaya, so you may decide to skip the extra cost for organic on these. You can download the Environmental Working Group’s shopping guide to help you make savvy decisions here: http://www.foodnews.org.
Choose organic food for items that your family eats the most. If your family drinks gallons and gallons of milk each week, consider allocating your organic funds there. If your kids won’t touch anything but grapes, think about splurging on organic ones and balancing out the rest of your cart with conventional foods that don’t have as big an impact on your family.
Look for store brands. Many national supermarkets now have their own private label organics brand. Here are some examples of where we found them.
• 365 Organic: Whole Foods Market
• Green Way: A&P, Waldbaum’s, Pathmark, Food Emporium, Super Fresh, Food Basics
• GreenWise: Publix
• O Organics: Safeway, Vons, Carrs, Randalls, Tom Thumb, Genuardi’s
• Private Selection Organic: Kroger, Ralphs, King Soopers, City Market, Dillons, Smith’s, Fry’s, QFC, Baker’s, JayC Food Stores, Gerbes, Pay Less Super Markets, Scott’s Food & Pharmacy
• Wild Harvest Organic: Shaw’s/Star Market, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons, Farm Fresh, Shop ‘n Save, Acme, Hornbacher’s Cub Foods
• Winn-Dixie Organics: Winn-Dixie
• Nature’s Basket Organic: Giant Eagle, Market District, Giant Eagle Express
Cut coupons. Check out HealthESavers for specialty brands or go to Coupons.com to see if your favorite organics brand has any coupons available. You can also go directly to the website of your brand-of-choice to be added to coupon distribution lists.
Subscribe to an RSS feed. The Organic Trade Association scouts out prices and reports bargains on its Savvy Organic Shopper blog. Sign up to get the 411 on deals.
Buy in bulk. Warehouse clubs are a great place to find savings, and buying in bulk is especially handy when shopping for a family.
Look for local produce. True, local doesn’t necessarily mean organic, but many local farmers are producing food in accordance with organic standards and just haven’t paid to be certified by the USDA. Ask the farmer. Also, local produce means you’re buying in season when there is an abundance of that item. That tends to translate into good deals.