5 Mistakes People Make When Buying Organic Foods

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There’s been an ongoing debate about whether organic food products are any healthier than their conventional cousins. To make matters more confusing, studies over the past few years have contradicted each other, with reports from some sources indicating that there is no difference, while others claim that the difference between the two is real and measurable.

Regardless of what you believe, research has shown that the majority of produce made and consumed in the United States contains pesticide residues, which may be harmful to human health. According to the Environmental Working Group, “two-thirds of produce samples in recent government tests had pesticide residues.”

Further, if you are trying to eat organic, whatever your reasons may be, it can be incredibly difficult to do so on a budget. The USDA estimates that organic produce is anywhere from 10 to 30 percent more expensive than produce from conventional sources, depending on what you buy. But buying organic doesn’t have to completely destroy your grocery budget — here are five mistakes to avoid next time you hit the grocery store.

Don’t swear by the label

It would be nice if all you had to do to ensure that you and your family were eating nutritious, healthy, and uncontaminated food was buy any product slapped with a “certified organic” sticker, right? Unfortunately, that’s simply not how it goes, and too often consumers assume that because a product is organic it’s automatically healthier.

Frozen, packaged, and processed foods, for instance, can all be certified organic, but that doesn’t make them any healthier for you than their conventional counterparts. Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, a registered dietician who contributes to online health database WebMD, says that a frozen dinner from Whole Foods is likely to be chock-full of sodium, just like offerings you’d find at a conventional grocery store.

By buying snack foods and other convenient packaged foods with an organic label, all you’re really doing is contributing to a steep grocery bill. Instead, try your best to avoid packaged and processed foods entirely. If you have to buy something packaged every once in a while, don’t sweat it too much, and don’t kid yourself — the conventional option will do just fine.

Further, it’s important to know your labels. To qualify for the USDA Certified Organic label, for instance, a product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, while some state organic certification agencies are still more stringent. In contrast, labels such as “free range,” “hormone-free,” and “natural” are all unregulated, meaning that almost any company can use those terms on their products.

Don’t buy organic everything

Most people have a budget to keep to, and sometimes it’s not worth it to stick to organic for every single piece of produce you buy. In the end, washing conventional produce can do a lot to cut back on potentially harmful chemicals, so don’t break the bank by trying to go completely organic. Instead, a good rule of thumb is to buy conventional when the fruit or vegetable has a skin, peel, or shell that you’re going to take off before you eat anyway. It’s a good idea to buy greens, strawberries, and apples organically, but don’t worry so much about oranges, pineapples, or avocados.

According to the Environmental Working Group, under conventional growing standards, certain fruits and vegetables are typically treated with or exposed to larger amounts of pesticides than others. The EWG took samples of fruits and vegetables from across the country and found that “every sample of imported nectarines and 99 percent of apple samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.”

The EWG has since compiled the worst offenders into a list of the “Dirty Dozen,” fruits and vegetables you should strive to buy organically if you want to avoid pesticide residue as much as possible. On the list: apples (at the top), strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, and potatoes. Hot peppers and kale have been added to the EWG’s latest list, because both vegetables are typically subjected to unusually harsh chemicals.

The group has also come up with a list of 15 fruits and vegetables that generally fall at the low end of the spectrum when it comes to pesticide exposure; these have been aptly nicknamed the “Clean Fifteen”: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.

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Don’t neglect the store brands

Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, two of the largest natural grocery chains in the U.S., both carry store-brand organic options, yet often people don’t think to utilize generic or store-brand options, believing them to be inferior. If your main concern is avoiding pesticides, the store-brand organics are just as good as that niche brand with the ritzy packaging.

Additionally, if you’re aiming to go organic, you might want to start frequenting a natural grocery chain, simply because organic offerings aren’t considered “specialty items” at a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods the way they would be at a conventional grocery store. Believe it or not, organic items are usually cheaper if you can get them at a grocery store that specializes in organic and natural products.

That being said, you can still find deals on organics outside of your local health food market. Costco is a great example; oftentimes you can find Kirkland Signature (the company’s store brand) organic food items for a fraction of what similar items would cost you if you bought them at a conventional grocery store.

Don’t buy strawberries in February

This one might seem obvious, given the increasing attention being paid to locavore and eating local movements in recent years, but nonetheless, it’s true. Eating in season is absolutely cheaper: Buying strawberries in January when you live on the East Coast is simply not a wise financial decision, even if you aren’t concerned with buying organic.

Eating in season, though, doesn’t have to mean eating locally. Yes, eating from primarily local sources is a great way to support the hometown economy, but it can also be incredibly tough. Not many people will voluntarily eat a steady diet of root vegetables all winter long, especially while forgoing cinnamon, orange juice, and other luxuries that stem from far-flung locales.

What we’re talking about when we say “eat in season” is eating what’s in season nationwide, or even to some extent globally. Oranges are in season in Florida and California throughout most of the year, with the exception of the hot summer months of July, August, and September, and will be cheapest and tastiest if you avoid them during the summer. Strawberries, on the other hand, have a pretty limited season and will demand premium prices throughout the winter and into the early spring.

There are few different online tools you can use to identify what’s in season when. Eat the Seasons, a website devoted specifically to identifying in-season foods in North America week by week, and Epicurious’s Seasonal Ingredient Map, which lets you select your home state, are both good resources to check out.

Preston Maring, an assistant physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, spoke with Self magazine and said that if you really just have to have berries in the middle of winter, going frozen is probably your best option. “It’s critically important to get fruits and vegetables any way you can get them, but frozen organic food is a much better option than shipping stuff from 2,000 miles away,” he told the publication.

Don’t skip the farmer’s market

In general, it seems there’s this perception across the United States that farmers markets are for the wealthy, or that they are always prohibitively expensive. And while it’s true that you can buy some seriously pricey, locally made niche products at most farmers markets, you also have the opportunity to buy directly from farmers who are working and producing near you, and it’s amazing what cutting out the middleman can do.

Further, farmers aren’t looking to tote all of their produce home with them, so markets can be one instance in which arriving late has its benefits, as local farmers are often willing to give you a steep discount on produce they’re looking to get rid of before the end of the day.

Additionally, joining a local food co-op can also help you snag savings, as these groups generally carry a number of specials for members that can help you cut down on your grocery bill.

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