You've probably noticed the increased availability of organic foods at your local grocery store over the past decade. Organic foods constitute one of the fastest growing sectors of the food industry. In 2017 food sales in general increased 1.1% over the previous year, but organic food sales increased 6.4% in the United States.
So, what does the word “organic” mean and should we be paying the extra money for these products?
The USDA started regulating the organic food industry in 2002. When you see the USDA Organic label it means that the food has been produced and handled “through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” Let's break that down a little further.
The food is grown in soil that hasn’t had any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides applied to it for “three years prior to harvest.” Synthetic fertilizer runoff into our water systems can create aquatic life die-off, algae bloom and dead zones in the ocean. When you use organic fertilizers you're helping the health and quality of the earth’s soil and water supply.
For animal food products to receive the organic designation, they must be “raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.” This means you are buying food from animals that have been raised in healthy conditions with access to the outdoors.
For multi-ingredient foods, such as granola, “regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.”
Organic foods can’t be grown using genetically modified organisms (GMO).
We're convinced we want to buy organic whenever possible, but do know they can oftentimes be more expensive. In 2015 Consumer Reports conducted a study “comparing the cost of a market basket of organic goods—fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, milk, and other edibles—to their conventional counterparts.” They found that the organic foods were on average 47% more expensive, but there was a wide range in pricing.
Prioritize which foods you buy organic
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) worked with the USDA and the FDA to come up with a list of the most commonly purchased produce and their amount of contamination from most to least. Because buying organic is typically more expensive, keep these lists in mind when you're shopping so you can prioritize when to spend a little extra to buy organic.
The Dirty Dozen (highest pesticide contamination — buy organic if at all possible)
The Middle 21 (medium pesticide contamination — moderately important to buy organic)
Sweet Bell Peppers
The Clean 15 (lower pesticide contamination — least important to buy organic)
Sweet peas frozen
We buy organic whenever possible because for us, paying a little extra here and there to do our part to contribute to better farming practices is worth it. We also know that a lot of the produce we buy from local farmers isn't certified organic, but we've talked to them about their farming practices (and sometimes have even visited their farms) and feel good about how their produce is grown. However, when we're at the grocery store and don't have the luxury of knowing the farm that the produce has come from, we rely on the organic certification to help us make our purchasing decisions.
Unfortunately, the organic certification process is expensive for the farmers and in the end we (the consumers) pay for it. Wouldn’t it be better for the consumer and also the environment if there weren't any expensive regulatory conditions for the organic farmer but instead sustainable farming just became common practice? In the meantime, we'll pay a little extra to support organic, and we hope these lists help you prioritize next time you go grocery shopping!