Shopping organic is a journey. At first, you might start by learning about the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, a guide on buying organic and avoiding pesticides in produce. But, what about the rest of your grocery cart or basket items? While choosing organic veggies and fruits is a terrific start, this blog post serves to give some guidance on how to bring your organic shopping knowledge to the next level – in every corner of the store. We need to go beyond the produce section in order to grow the demand and the availability of organic.
From crackers to tea and coffee, dry grocery items are widely available as organic. The USDA’s organic labeling standards help explain the different levels of organic labeling:
Only uses exclusively organic methods, containing only organic ingredients.
Contains at least 95% organic ingredients; meaning 5% or less of the ingredients may be agricultural products that are not available as organic and/or non-agricultural products that are on the National List.
Made with organic:
70% to 95% organic ingredients may display “Made with organic [with up to 3 specific organic ingredients]” on the front panel.
*Any non-organic ingredients used in the above labeling categories may not be produced using genetic engineering, irradiation, or sewage sludge.
Less than 70% organic ingredients can only list the organic items on the ingredient panel.
Many supermarkets have a “store within a store” layout where you can find organic products in specified aisles. Alternatively, when natural is placed directly next to “conventional” items, some grocery chains will call out organic items in an aisle with special coloring or shelf tags. It may be hard to differentiate natural marketing claims, so looking for the USDA organic label is a clear way to ensure you’re eating organic. In addition, if you’re on a budget – choosing to buy in bulk is a great option for many dry grocery items – from almonds to cereal.
Bundle up for this next category. Depending on the season, fresh organic produce may not be available or affordable – so be sure to head to the freezer doors aisle of your market. As food author Michael Pollan explains, “Frozen vegetables and fruits are a terrific and economical option when fresh is unavailable or too expensive. The nutritional quality is just as good — and sometimes even better, because the produce is often picked and frozen at its peak of quality.” For these organic goodies, be sure to eat them sooner than later, as frozen vegetables and fruits degrade over months. In addition, using steam or a microwave helps minimize the loss of water-soluble vitamins (EatingWell).
Meat & Poultry
For all us carnivores, meat is a critical food group to purchase organic. In 2012, the average American consumed approximately 70 pounds of red meat and nearly 55 pounds of poultry per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – yet meat only accounts for 3% of all organic sales (ERS). Organic meat and poultry is healthier for you because organic certification means that it was not treated with hormones or antibiotics and must be fed only organically grown feed with no animal byproducts. (Environmental Working Group). It’s simple logic – by choosing organic meat, you lower your risk of consuming chemicals that may have negative health effects. From a humane, environmental, and health perspective, organic meat is the preferred choice over conventional – buying locally, where possible. Going one step further, some retailers and brands will give you information on how humanely the animal was treated.
If you've read about Genetically Modified Salmon, you know seafood is a hot topic! Unfortunately at this time, there is no organic certification for the seafood industry. Anything with a “wild fish” label means that the fish was born in the wild and lived there until it was caught where “wild caught fish” may have lived in a fish farm before being caught. Aquaculture, or fish farming, accounts for 50% of the fish consumed globally; meaning large quantities of wild fish are required to feed the farmed fish. For sustainable fish options in your local grocer, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of the most sustainable seafood choices, or look for the (MSC) label.
The labeling in the bakery section can be especially alluring and deceiving. Watch out for “natural” or “whole wheat” claims that give the impression of organic without the back-up evidence. Even “100% natural” breads can be full of dough conditioners, preservatives, GMOs, added sugar, artificial colors and flavoring, etc.
Alternatively, or in addition to whole wheat or white flour, consider adding sprouted grains to your diet for extra B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids. If gluten is not your friend, there are many gluten-free organic options in the bakery as well. From cupcakes to bagels, the bakery selection is continuing to grow with an assortment of organic and gluten-free options. Just be sure to read the ingredient label to get a full picture of the goodies you are looking to buy.
Prepared Foods & Deli
Overall, it is good to limit your intake of highly-processed meat and foods. For example, last October, the World Health Organization announced that processed meats — like bacon, sausages, beef jerky, and hot dogs — may cause cancer due to their high-temperature cooking methods (NPR). If you still want to purchase delicious items from the deli, Food Babe gives a few suggestions on purchasing deli items:
- Choose 100% certified organic (preferably grass fed/pastured). This ensures that the animals weren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones, weren’t fed GMOs, and none of the ingredients are derived from GMOs.
- Roast whole pieces of organic meat and slice it yourself.
- Select whole organic sliced deli meat without sodium nitrate.
- Avoid fillers or additives like carrageenan or maltodextrin.
Next to the meat counter in prepared foods, don’t forget to seek out fermented foods that boost good bacteria in your digestive tract, improving the health and balance of your body’s collective microbiome, or bacterial community like pickles and kimchi (Prevention).
Summing It Up:
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but is intended to begin the conversation about choosing organic from the moment you enter the store to last moment when you check out at the cash register. While organic produce is still a very important part of a natural organic lifestyle, learning how to consistently choose organic in all areas of the store will help ensure a well-rounded organic kitchen and pantry. These steps combined with buying local, reducing food waste, planting a garden, and composting will lead us to a healthier balanced life.