Buying Organic On A Budget

USDA OrganicOne of the ironies of eating healthfully in the United States is that it’s often expensive. The organic food movement is no exception: for the price of a carton of organic strawberries, you could probably buy a McDonald’s value meal.  Although eating organic foods seems costly, it’s possible to make it work on a budget, so long as you know how to shop smart.

You may be asking, “What’s the deal with organic foods?”  Organic produce is regulated by the government, and can only contain organically produced ingredients—with the exception of water and salt—to receive the USDA’s organic label.  This means the product cannot contain any pesticides or herbicides.  Here are some benefits of buying organic foods:

  1. They contain more nutrients.  Grass-fed animals are better for us to eat than grain-fed animals.  Organic chickens and their eggs are healthier for us than cage-raised chickens.  Similarly, fruits and vegetables grown in organic soil contain many more nutrients–and many more times the amount of antioxidants–than produce grown on industrialized farms.
  2. They don’t contain pesticides.  Yes, we eat pesticides regardless of whether we wash our non-organic produce.  Although the actual effects of pesticide ingestion in humans remain unclear, knowing that pesticides were originally derived from World War II nerve gases that the U.S. needed to properly dispose of will probably make you not want to eat food containing them.
  3. Don’t support industrialized farmers’ rapid destruction of our environment.  Large farms quickly and easily wear out the soil they inhabit by growing few different types of crops.  Runoff from fertilizer contributes to dead zones in the oceans, which suffocate wild fish and other sea creatures that are healthy parts of our ecosystem.
  4. Organic food tastes better.  This is something you can’t truly understand unless you try it.

What about the higher costs of eating organic?  Here are some tips that have saved me money at the grocery store while still enhancing my food quality:

  1. Look for deals in weekly ads at markets that sell a lot of organic products, such as Whole Foods or coops in your town.  In addition to running weekly sales on products, Whole Foods, for example, publishes a monthly newsletter called Whole Deal that includes valuable coupons, weekly meal plans for singles, couples, and families, and recipes for meals that only cost a few dollars per serving.
  2. Buy produce that is local and in season.  It’s cheaper and it tastes better.  It also didn’t travel as far to get to the grocery store, so it’s fresher.  You’ll also help support local farms and a friendly environment this way.
  3. Buy foods in bulk.  Organic markets and coops often sell flours, pastas, grains, cereals, seeds, spices, and even natural cleaning products by the pound.  Not paying for packaging will save you a more than you may think.
  4. Don’t shop at the grocery store.  If you can grow some of your own plants–even spices in containers–you’ll find that it’s rewarding and tastier than food from your supermarket.  Check out your neighborhood’s farmers’ market for the freshest and most local produce.  Alternatively, your neighborhood might have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where you receive a box of fresh produce each week from a local farm.

Determining which foods to buy organic is another complex issue. My favorite recommendations are from The Daily Green, which outlines the “Top 12 Foods to Eat Organic” and “10 Foods You Don’t Have to Buy Organic.”  My recommendations are as follows, with short explanations.

Buy Organic:

  1. Meat.  Although meat contains less pesticide residue than plant-based foods, conventional methods of raising animals involves widespread use of growth hormones and anitbiotics, crowded feed lots, and using pesticides and chemical fertilizers on the grain used to feed the animals.  Basically, we end up eating these things in our meat to some degree.
  2. Dairy.  For the same reasons as meat, animals that are fed growth hormones and antibiotics transfer this to their dairy outputs.
  3. Coffee.  The majority of our coffee in the U.S. comes from countries that don’t regulate the use of chemicals and pesticides, so buying organic ensures your coffee beans are pesticide-free.  Buying Fair Trade Certified would be even better as purchases supports programs to pay coffee farmers fairly and support their communities.
  4. Any fruit or vegetable with thin or no skin or peel. A thin skin or peel on produce, especially one that you eat, increases the chance that you are consuming pesticides with your food.  Not only does produce skin hold pesticides, but pesticides can penetrate the skin and invade the inside of the fruit, so even washing is ineffective at getting rid of pesticide residue.  In a studied conducted by the USDA in the early 2000s, 98% of peaches surveyed contained pesticide residue.  In addition, if you buy produce out of season–strawberries in the wintertime, for example–odds are that they’re imported from a country that has less stringent regulations on pesticides.  Some examples of fruits and vegetables to always buy organic include:
  • Peaches, nectarines, and plums
  • Apples and pears
  • Peppers
  • Celery
  • Strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries
  • Cherries
  • Leafy greens and kale
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots and potatoes
  • Grapes

Organic farningNot worth the extra money:
Fruits and vegetables with thicker skin or peels.  Some examples include:

  1. Onions.  Onions are not subject to as many pest threats, so less pesticides are needed.  Plus, onions are peeled before consuming.
  2. Avocados, pineapples, mangoes, kiwi, and bananas. Fruits like this have thicker peels that protect the edible fruit from pesticide build-up and residue.
  3. Asparagus.  Similar to onions, asparagus is less subject to pest threats.
  4. Cabbage and sweet peas.  These vegetables don’t retain pesticide residue.

So how practical is it to actually buy organic?  Since deciding to buy more foods local and organic, I’ve actually found that at many stores, buying organic isn’t that much more expensive, particularly when you buy foods that are in season.  To my surprise, at Trader Joe’s organic produce is often less expensive than the conventional varieties.  And don’t forget to shop at your town’s farmer’s market—you’ll find the freshest, most nutritious, and most flavorful foods there.  Good luck!

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