Monday, September 3, 2012

What You Pay For When You Buy Organic

Growing up, I always straddled an uncomfortable line.  On the one hand, we were very earth-conscious, frugal and generally healthy eaters.  On the other hand, we were also decidedly working class, and there was always a little discomfort about the "new-agey, Birkenstock-wearing crunchy granola-heads" and the "cosmopolitan, latte-sipping yuppies."  Those people didn't have to work hard, unglamorous and often life-threatening jobs in order to provide for their families.  Those people could afford to shop at Whole Foods and make fruity dishes from scratch every night -- or have their maids do it.  And those people bought organic because they thought they were better than everybody else. 

As I got older -- and my dad retired from his blue collar job -- we started to shift a little bit me toward the "crunchy granola" side of the spectrum, but some of those underlying biases still follow me.  It still bothers me for rich, entitled white people to tell poor minorities how they should eat, and it really bothers me to see rich, well-fed people talk about "suffering" economically as if selling a few stocks to pay the mortgage on your half-million dollar house means a damn thing. 

But that's neither here nor there.  Right now, we're talking about organic food -- and, more importantly, whether buying organic actually matters or if it's just a way for the hipsters to be more superior than the rest of us. 

What is "Organic," Anyway? 

If you want to be scientific about it, the word "organic" simply means carbon-based, ie, alive.  If something was once alive at any point, it's carbon-based, making it by definition organic.  But that's not what "organic" means in the grocery store (unfortunately -- that would make shopping much simpler).  Instead, "organic foods" are those produced without synthetic pesticides, radiation treatments, artificial fertilizers or genetic modification. 

In terms of meat and dairy, organic means that the animal was fed organic feed and was not confined 100% of the time.  It's important to realize that this is not the same as grass-fed or pastured meat.  A cow could be fed a diet of corn and kept on a feed lot and it would still be organic as long as it was organic corn and a big feed-lot.  In order to get good dairy, eggs and meat, you'll want to look for labels that say "pastured" or "grass-fed," and that might be hard to find in a regular supermarket. 

Now, if you spend any time at all in a store like Whole Foods, you'll discover that lots of things are labeled as "organic," including cereal, crackers, yogurt, ice cream, etc.  What's up with that?  That just means that the item was made from organic ingredients.  There are different labeling rules:
  • 100% organic means it's made with (you guessed it) 100% organic ingredients
  • Organic means it's made with 95% or more organic ingredients
  • Made with organic ingredients means that 70% of the ingredients are organic and the other 30% have to fall within certain parameters, like being non-GMO
  • If the product is made with less than 70% organic ingredients, it can't say "organic" on the label, but it can specify which ingredients are organic in the ingredient list
You can read all about organic labeling practices and other information here.  

Is Organic Food Really Better For You? 

It's no surprise that organic food costs more than regular commercially produced food.  The fruits and vegetables themselves also tend to be smaller, which makes it seem like you're getting a terrible value.  And, to be fair, eating any vegetables at all is still better than eating none, so if you absolutely cannot afford organic fresh produce (and I totally understand), buy the commercial stuff and be happy. 

But here's a few reasons why you should really try to eat organically whenever possible: 
  • You won't consume as many pesticides.  In the quantities you'll eat them at, adults usually won't have any problems with pesticides, but they can cause problems for developing fetuses and young children.  If you're really concerned about eating pesticides, you can start buying organic foods by using the "dirty dozen" rule. 
  • You're keeping the water supply cleaner.  Rain water and other types of run-off take things from plants and soil.  All of this ends up finding its way back into your water supply, and usually in much more concentrated amounts. 
  • You're avoiding GMO foods.  I'm actually not opposed to the idea of bio-engineered foods at all, but unfortunately the technology has been put to terrible use.  I'll talk about GMO some other time, but for now just know that it's generally a good idea to avoid them thanks to corporate interests. 
  • The foods will generally have more nutrients.  Natural soil has more stuff in it, and plants that build up their own immune systems usually have more vitamins in them.  So even though the plant is smaller, it will usually taste richer and contain more nutrients.  
So, to sum up:  Buying organic produce is generally a good idea, and you should do it whenever you have the chance.  Organic meat, eggs and dairy aren't necessarily the best choice, though, and that whole debacle will be tackled in an upcoming post.  Organic foods can still be processed, so you still have to read ingredients and decide if it's worth buying the packaged food or if you'd rather make it yourself.  Organic foods are expensive, but they're also more nutrient-dense so that helps mitigate the cost.

Oh, and one final parting word:  Being "certified organic" is expensive and requires some effort that small farms aren't always able to do.  If you're shopping at a farmer's market, you can just ask the farmer about his or her practices.  They might not be able to claim organic practices, but they can tell you whether they use pesticides or artificial fertilizers.  Don't assume, however, that all local farmers are organic.  It's always better to ask.  

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