April 28, 2008

Be smart when buying organic

Filed under: Food & Drink — Diane @ 8:19 am

According to CNN.com and the New York Times, at least some consumers seem to be backing off from purchasing “organic” products, at least partially because they cost so darned much more than “non-organic” alternatives.

Another part of the problem is confusion over terms: organic versus “natural” versus “green” or “eco-friendly.“ What do they all mean, and what difference does it make?

But the number one concern according to the polls quoted by CNN is the price of organic products — as much as 50% to 100% more than comparable non-organic products.

The Challenge of Being Green

So how do you balance being eco-conscious with being budget conscious at the same time? We all want to help the environment (at least, I assume none of us are in favor of actively damaging the world we live in), but there’s only so much money to go around and few of us can afford to pay $7 or $8 for a gallon of milk or $4.50 for a loaf of bread just because they’ve got an “organic” label slapped on them.

For some consumers, a commitment to going organic means they’re willing to cut back on other discretionary spending in order to be able to afford the high price of organic goods. The NY Times article quotes one shopper who quit smoking, cut back on drinking and has eliminated unnecessary spending on things like ski trips and the like. But not all of us are willing (or able) to make the kind of cuts necessary. So what else can we do?

A way some consumers are coping with the high price of organic produce is by switching to buying local produce at farmers’ markets as much as possible. If you have a well-stocked, legitimate farmer’s market in your area, this can be an attractive alternative. The produce may not be strictly 100% certified organic, but it’s local, it’s usually less expensive than the supermarket, and you’re supporting smaller farmers who do tend in many cases to practice more environmentally-friendly farming than the big conglomerates that supply the food store chains.

Problem is, some so-called “farmers’ markets” aren’t what they may seem on the surface. There’s a small market near my home, for instance, that calls itself a farmer’s market and offers bushel baskets of various types of fresh produce out front. Only thing is, I notice some items (such as bananas) that I know nobody here in North Carolina is likely growing. And others (such as some onions they had recently) that were already tagged with those little grocery store stickers with the four-digit ID numbers on them the supermarket clerks use to identify and ring up produce items. Which means, those onions weren’t just dug up out of the ground by a local farmer. This alleged “farmer’s market” bought them from a distributor.

Of course, some of their produce is obviously fresh and locally-grown. The point is, you have to be careful, if your objective is to buy locally-grown produce, to make sure what you’re getting really is locally-grown and wasn’t shipped in from out of state (or out of the country).

And what if you don’t have a farmer’s market nearby, but you’re still concerned about pesticide use on produce you and your family consume?

A recommendation from some experts is to choose your produce wisely. Those that are typically high in pesticides, pay the higher price to buy organic. Those that are typically low in pesticides, you can save money by going “regular.”

The Environmental Working Group has a fruit and veggie guide you can print out and tuck in your wallet that rates 43 common produce items by the amount of pesticides non-organic versions typically carry.

So, for instance, if you want peaches (#1 highest pesticide load), you’d probably want to go organic. But for onions (the lowest pesticide load on the list), you can pretty safely buy “regular.” You can decide for yourself where along the spectrum your tolerance lies, and shop accordingly.

Knowledge, they say, is power. With this list, the power is now in your hands. Use it in good health!

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