Once the bastion of health food stores and food co-ops, organic food has gone from rarefied to mainstream. In the 10 years since the green "USDA organic" seal began appearing on supermarket shelves, the word "organic" has become part of our vernacular. It is a world that has expanded beyond the brown rice and wheat germ stereotypes of the '70s to include every possible type of food, from chips and salsa to ketchup for those frozen organic fries.
When you buy a product with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal, it means it has been grown or processed without chemicals, drugs or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Although organic food has been touted as more nutritious and better for the environment, it is often (and justifiably) perceived as more expensive than its non-organic counterparts. But there are ways to save and stretch your organic dollar.
Here are a few tips to get started, plus how to make the most of non-organic offerings.
Start local. Make a date with your neighborhood farmers market or farm stand, where the growers are delighted to tell you everything you've ever wanted to know about your favorite fruits and vegetables. Sometimes they're organic, sometimes they're not -- but the farmers will be able to explain how and why they farm the way they do. (Many small farms often farm organically but cannot afford the costly certification process.) You're buying seasonal produce at its peak, which means freshly harvested, super tasty and typically less than what you'll pay at the supermarket.
For supermarket shopping, bring a copy of (or download onto your mobile phone) the "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce" from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Based on USDA and FDA data, EWG has compiled two list -- the "Dirty Dozen," the 12 non-organic produce items with the highest ranked pesticide load -- and the "Clean 15," the least contaminated produce items. Apples, celery and strawberries are among the "Dirty Dozen," while avocados, asparagus and onions top the clean list. With these lists in tow, you can make smarter organic choices for your money.
Two key factors distinguish organic milk from non-organic. For organic milk, the cows are fed an exclusively organic diet and are allowed in varying degrees to roam and forage on pasture. Organic milk also does not contain synthetic growth hormones (also known as rbGH or rbST) that are banned in the EU, Japan, Canada and Australia for their associated cancer risks.
As a result, organic milk and dairy items are at least one-third more expensive than non-organic. However, there are a considerable number of non-organic dairies making hormone-free milk at a more reasonable price. Look for labels that state, "this milk is made from cows not treated with rbST" or "rbGH-free." You may notice similar labels for ice cream, yogurt, and other dairy items.
USDA organic eggs come from hens that are fed an exclusively organic diet. They are not treated with antibiotics. As for the use of hormones, the USDA prohibits them for all chicken -- organic or non-organic -- so keep this in mind when you see labels touting "hormone-free." It doesn't mean anything.
Organically raised hens must also have access to the outdoors, which means they cannot live in battery cages. But the laws are vague, so it doesn't ensure truly pastured or free-range conditions that allow hens to roam and forage. Some egg cartons advertise "free range" but it's a term not regulated by the USDA and subject to interpretation. When you see "vegetarian-fed" labels, keep in mind that hens are not vegetarians, as they like to feed on worms and bugs when given the opportunity.
Because organic feed costs more, organic eggs do, too. But even at six dollars a dozen (not uncommon in metropolitan areas), organic eggs are still a bargain, at 50 cents per egg.
Eggs are yet another reason to shop at the farmers market, where you can get straight talk from the farmer on their egg-laying hens. Cheaper still: Find out which of your friends are raising chickens in their backyards and make a neighborly trade. Urban chicken farming, now legally permissible in many cities, has become a popular hobby for foodies.
Organic Shopping Strategies
As mentioned earlier, your neighborhood farmers' market or farm stand is a great place to find affordable organic (as well as non-organic) produce as well as dairy, eggs and meat. You're buying seasonal ingredients at their peak, which means fresh off the farm, super tasty and typically less than what you'll pay at the supermarket.
If market shopping is too time intensive and requires an appointment that often gets broken, consider a CSA subscription. Also known as Community Supported Agriculture, CSAs are another revenue stream for small farms that offer a weekly delivery or drop-off of produce (and /or eggs or meat) in exchange for a one-time subscription paid in advance for the season. For a family of four, CSAs can be a real cost saver as weekly "dividends" are known to be generous and ample, and payment is occasional rather than weekly.
At the supermarket, explore the bulk bins section, where beans, legumes, grains, nuts, herbs and spices -- both organic and non-organic -- are typically less than their packaged counterparts on the shelf. You can also buy just what you need, which is useful when money is tight.
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