When I Buy Organic and Other Options to Organic Foods

Organic fruits and vegetables should be high quality and affordable. However, this often isn't true. When there are too many unpalatable choices on the road to organic eating, what should you do? Here's my when to buy organic and if that matters outlook...

NHHM: When I Buy Organic and Other Options to Organic Foods

Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

Like you, I'm inundated with recommendations to eat organic if possible. I've routinely looked up the annual posting of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to see which foods are best to eat organic because of GMO seed usage, pesticide and herbicide residues and to find out the foods that don't really matter because they test clean. 

I know there's been controversy for years over how accurate the depiction of the foods on the Dirty Dozen list is. As a consumer, I always figure it's better to be safe than sorry. If I can buy those foods organic, then I will.

Plus, the Dirty Dozen list has been expanded to rank a total of 47 foods in 2019. After studying the lists, I realize some of the foods on the expanded Dirty Dozen list are also on the Clean Fifteen list. Then, I determine the last 15 foods on the Dirty Dozen list are actually the Clean Fifteen. 

What about all the foods not on the lists? I decide unless I find out otherwise, I'll consider them to be OK to buy normal, not organic. 

OK, now I'm armed with information. Time to buy safe food for myself and my family. 

Reality of Organic Choices: Grocery

I live in small town America. When I go to the grocery store and look for fresh or frozen organic produce, this is what I find compared to non-organic produce:

  • Small selection 
  • Significantly more expensive prices except for some summer and fall sales
  • Fresh produce is often not very fresh
  • Produce marked organic is often not from the US

When I've traveled to larger cities and grocery shopped, I've often found the same issues as I have in my home base. Often larger cities have less extremes in price and selection between organic and non-organic produce. However, there is still a stark difference.

Strawberries are a terrific example. Organic strawberries are usually

  • A few cartons versus many for non-organic
  • Cost at least twice as much as non-organic strawberries
  • Smell like cardboard instead of strawberries (for fresh)
  • Often from a South American country, especially during cold months in the US

When I want to eat a fresh strawberry, I also want it to taste like a juicy, flavorful strawberry. Imagine that! 

My experience with most other organic produce is the same as strawberries. I'll find a few exceptions during peak growing periods for the particular fruit or vegetable, but overall it's difficult to find good quality organic produce that isn't exorbitantly expensive.

NHHM: When to Buy Organic

Reality of Organic Choices: Farmer's Markets and Stands

Unfortunately, our local farmer's markets rarely have organic fruits and vegetables for sale. Ditto for local fruit and vegetable stands. I assume it's due to the hurdles small farmers have to jump for organic certification.

It's not that I have the choice of buying local organic produce at a higher price either. Local organic produce isn't an option, or if it is, I haven't been able to find it. We have quite a few local farmers also, so the lack of organic isn't due to the lack of farming in the region.

Perhaps in larger cities, there are more local organic selections because there's a bigger target market. However, if my small town America is like others, then I'm not alone in not finding local organic produce. 

Organic Foods from Other Countries

When I pay for organic, especially if I'm paying significantly higher prices for organic, I want to make sure it's actually organic.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm skeptical of an organic label from a third world country. Based on studies I've read, I know there's very little testing of organic produce to ascertain if it's actually organic as it enters the US. For that reason, I only purchase organic products from the US, Canada and Europe. 

Why the US, Canada, and Europe? Basically the US and Canada have similar food safety standards. Not that I think the US food safety standards are high enough, but at least Canada meets US standards. The EU has higher food safety standards than either Canada or the US

Much of the organic produce I see in my local markets are from countries not on my approved organic list. How can I tell? Often, I have to actually pick up the produce and read the tiny label. Sigh. This is time consuming and frustrating. 

Fresh Versus Frozen Organic

Fresh isn't guaranteed to be more nutritious than frozen food. I've read many scientific articles comparing the two. Net: there are pros and cons to both. Considering variables such as time between harvest and table, maturation level of the produce when picked, processing and storage methods, etc. they end up being very similar in nutrient content on average. 

As a result, I have some organic produce I routinely buy as frozen most of the year. They are

  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Raspberries
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries

I sometimes purchase frozen organic blueberries when they're not price prohibitive.

As for fresh organic produce, here's what I can usually find locally that's reasonably priced (for organic). I only purchase these if they're good quality:

  • Apples
  • Cabbage
  • Celery
  • Lettuce, spinach and spring mix
  • Tomatoes

What About Everything Else?

For the remainder of the Dirty Dozen list, we rarely eat grapes, nectarines, pears and peaches. When we do eat them in the height of summer, if I can find tasty, good quality organic, then I buy them. Otherwise, we extremely infrequently eat non-organic versions. We do eat organic raisins regularly. I usually purchase them online for good quality and price. 

I believe it's better to eat a large variety of produce on a frequent basis whether organic or not. If I can buy organic reasonably, I do. Otherwise I buy what is good quality and available. 

NHHM: When I Buy Organic

As for grains, I routinely purchase common grains as organic either due to concerns about GMO or because the price is reasonable. I always try to purchase organic 

  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Wheat

We don't eat that many grains in our household, but when when I can control whether they're organic or not, I try to do so. Most of the grains we eat outside our home will not be organic so I try to balance our intake. 

Bottom Line: Eating Organic is Hit and Miss

At our house, the bottom line is we eat organic foods far less than I'd like. I'd like for us to eat organic 100% of the time. However, the reality of availability, cost and quality often means I make the choice to buy non-organic foods. 

I firmly believe eating a variety of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis is a requirement for optimal health. As a result, I pay attention to the Dirty Dozen list, and the expanded list down to the Clean 15, but my food buying is often based on other factors. 

What's your experience with purchasing organic produce? How much organic foods do you and your family eat? Do you feel like you need to eat more organic foods but can't? Do you have other experiences with purchasing organic? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments. 

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