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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What About Organics?

Those that know me well know I can tend to be down on organics.  I have been known to steer people away from them (because I know for most it is out of the budget).

There is a lot of hype surrounding organics.  Many years ago, when our grandparents were growing up, they ate everything organic.  They ate grass-fed beef and free-range poultry.  They drank clean, pure water, and breathed in lots of fresh air.  Yet, their water didn’t come in bottles, labeled as pure, and their produce wasn’t labeled organic.  That’s just all there was.  No one even used the word.  The word organic meaning, “free from pesticides and fertilizers” was first used in 1942.  It wasn’t really until the 60s and 70s that the natural, organic movement started.

People in the 60s and 70s started getting back to farming, buying natural foods, living naturally.  But organic still wasn’t a big deal.  It was a given, if you were buying natural health foods, they were organic.

In the last decade or so, though, organic has been taken over by the marketers.  Businesses have cashed in on the fact that consumers will buy anything labeled organic, but as always, they want to produce a product at the lowest possible cost. There was an article in Business Week in 2006 that reported that American organic farmers were concerned that Walmart was getting into the organic market, because they get so much of their product from China.  They were concerned that they would be buying organic produce from China and thus hurting American farms.  I don’t know if Walmart is buying their organic produce from China or not, but another article in Business Week from 2007 reported that Wisconsin had launched an investigation to see if Walmart was misleading consumers.  Apparently they had signage advertising organics too near food that did not qualify.  The issue is a lack of education.  Most people could not tell you what it really means.  And businesses are taking advantage of that fact.  There are organic cereals, sweeteners, even pajamas (organic cotton) on the market.

So what is organic anyway and why would we want it?

Organic refers to an item that was raised without the use of chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides.  Technically, in order for something to be approved by the USDA as organic, it has to have been grown in ground that has not had chemicals applied to it for seven years!  In fact, the red tape is so extensive there are many small farms that can’t label their produce as “organic”, when it really is (and is probably better than the organics you buy at Walmart—keep reading to find out why).

People do equate organic with health, though, but what does that mean?  And that is where you have to be a wise consumer.  Organics will be healthier if the item really is organic (some companies have been guilty of labeling their product as organic, when it is not).  Obviously it is healthier to consume something that has not been sprayed with chemicals.  But do organics really have more vitamins and minerals?  That depends on the soil they were grown in and when they were harvested (how ripe).  Farming strips nutrients from the soil because the nutrients go into the plants.  Unless the farmer is feeding the soil and/or rotating his/her crops, the soil will get depleted.  After a while the plants growing in that soil will not be producing fruit and vegetables with much vitamin and mineral content.  Another factor is when the item is harvested.  Is it harvested green and shipped a long distance to the store?  If so, it will not have the ideal vitamin and mineral content.

Another problem I have with organics is the cost.  The cost has been driven up because of the trend, the demand.  So many people now shop at Whole Foods just because it’s cool.  Some people just love the store itself, regardless of what they even sell.  If people were really educated and making wise purchasing decisions with organics, perhaps the costs would come down, I think so.

So yes, I am all into organics, but I have a few pointers.

  • Don’t break the bank buying organics.  If it is in your budget, then go for it, but don’t exceed what you can really spend.  Put your grocery dollar where you will get the highest return.  Butter, raw milk, and grass-fed meat will give you more bang for your buck in the vitamin and mineral department.

  • The best organic food to buy is locally grown—these items are picked at their peak ripeness and are full of vitamins and minerals.  Go to the local farmers market and ask around.  Ask the farmers about their methods.  They may be a small farmer who can’t afford the official organic designation, but they are religious about avoiding chemicals and feeding the soil.

  • Don’t fall for organic processed food, things like cereals and granola bars.  The processing negates the nutrition—save your money.

  • Check into cooperatives.  I just started ordering from Azure Standard.  They have really great prices.  All of the items I ordered were a lower price than they would be at Whole Foods, and some were even lower than Walmart prices!  For example, I bought organic butternut squash for only .28 cents per pound!  That is amazing!  Walmart’s current price is $1.25 per pound for conventional squash.  I also ordered organic peanut butter—it came in a 15-pound pail.  I was buying a natural peanut butter from Walmart for $2.36 per 16-ounce jar.  This pail ended up being an increase of only about .40 per pound.  I felt that was a worthy increase for an organic product.  Apparently peanuts are notoriously high in pesticides, and as my kids like peanut butter most every day, I feel good about this purchase (plus it tastes great—better than the natural kind I was previously buying).  I just saved a few of my peanut butter jars, so we wouldn’t have to use it direct from the big pail.

  • Plant a garden!  Buy some compost (this is soil with lots of organic matter and nutrients to feed your veggies).  Nothing tastes as good as a tomato picked right out of the back yard!  Start with something easy like tomatoes.  You can add to your garden every year.  This year I will be growing peas, carrots, beets, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, summer squash, pumpkins, butternut squash, watermelons, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumbers, strawberries, and various herbs.  This is my biggest answer to the organic issue, but it may not be the answer for everyone.  What I save in my budget, I will be paying for in labor.  (But I enjoy it.)

  • Check out the list of items that are high in pesticides.  Choose organics when you can in these categories:

1.     peaches

2.     strawberries

3.     apples

4.     spinach

5.     nectarines

6.     celery

7.     pears

8.     cherries

9.     potatoes

10.  sweet bell peppers

11.  raspberries

12.  grapes (imported)

Or click here, this page offers a range of foods, sorted into four categories, from foods to avoid, to so-so, to better, to best.

So, I hope I have helped bring clarity to this issue and happy shopping!


  1. great! thanks so much--wonderfully written!

  2. I like the advice about not going out of your budget. Let's face it, shopping for natural organic to be healthy, can cost more than processed garbage. Good advice and great article.

  3. Um.. make your own compost. When you look at the labeling on bags of compost, many quite prominently have "organic" written on it (organic.. but none say "certified" organic as there is no such thing.) This is completely misleading as it literally means nothing more than "carbon based materials". Further.. what qualifies are things like shredded tree filler (which may offer some loft to the soil, but the point of compost is that the materials have broken down enough that they are now in more simple chemical forms which are then able to be utilized by the plants you are growing).. and then there are lovely things that some companies are using like processed municipal biosolids. Don't confuse their labeling as meaning the compost is of quality.

    Also.. many of those "small" company labels of organic foods have been bought up my major companies. So in many cases where you think you are supporting a small company.. you're not. Here's a chart that shows some of the big label acquisitions if you are curious.

    There is another reason why some people opt for organic.. and that would be because they are against GMO foods (ironic in some cases as the big labels are buying those companies). If you get the chance, I highly suggest you take a look at 2 documentary films.. "Controlling Our Food" and "The Future of Food". With seed companies being snapped up and even strains of heirloom vegetables being patented by these major companies, it effects what options you have and what you grow in your own backyard.

    The Future of Food: http://www.thefutureoffood.com/onlinevideo.html

    Controlling Our Food:

    I didn't think much about conventionally grown produce until it hit close to home.

    Local (organic.. even if not certified) farmers are wonderful. Even Farmer's Markets.. get to know the growers. I go at the end of the day as many of the ones I talk to also tend to toss in a bunch of extras vs packing it back up. Ask them what varieties they are growing.. they are a great source of info as some will tell you which types are doing better than others and they like knowing which ones you find best.