Organic - What, Why, How & When?

When buying groceries for your family, do you ever choose organic foods over conventional produce? 

Whether you select organic options regularly or have never given it a thought, we hope that this article is helpful for you to better understand what organic means, why it is a good option when possible, how to find organic options in your area, and when it matters most.

What does organic mean? 

When you select something that is certified organic, that means that it meets the following requirements:

  1. Produce is grown without irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, or GMOs.
  2. Animal products come from animals without antibiotics or growth hormones, fed 100% organic feed, and provided access to outdoors.
  3. Processed foods labeled organic are, at a minimum 95% or more organic, although a couple ingredients may not be organic.

Organic does NOT guarantee that produce is local/seasonal; animals are pasture-raised, grass-fed, or cage-free; or indicate the size of the farm or working conditions; but the organic label can give you a general idea of how your food was grown or raised before it came to your table.

For more information about organic standards, see the USDA website, or the Federal Regulations Code for organic foods.

Why should we select organic?

There are many reasons to purchase organic, but here are some of the top reasons to buy organic.

  • No chemicals: Washing your fruits and vegetables does not remove all the residue from pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers make their way into the soil and water, affecting the entire plant and not just the skin. Children and pregnant women are especially susceptible to the chemicals in pesticides, but the use of pesticides have an effect on the environment as well. Buying organic food not only ensures minimal toxic exposure for yourself and your family, but also supports a more sustainable and natural form of agriculture. For more about pesticides in food, see the NRDC website.
  • Higher vitamin and mineral content: Compared to conventionally grown produce, organic produce has higher concentrations of key nutrients such as vitamin C, iron and magnesium (article here).
  • Non-GMO: The best way to ensure that your food does not include GMOs is to purchase organic. The Cornucopia Institute's website has a list of the 10 most common GMO foods, the top three being soy, corn, and canola oil. That means that unless you purchase organic corn, soy, or canola oil, the variety you find in the super market is likely genetically modified. The Non-GMO project is another resource for recognizing GM (and non-GM) food options and their website has more information about genetic modification in our food supply.
  • Need more reasons? Check out Organic.org's top 10 reasons to buy organic.

How to find organic options

Are you ready to try and include more organic foods in your diet? They're easy to find if you know where to look!

  • In a grocery store or supermarket, look for produce that is labeled "organic".
    • If the fruit or vegetable has a produce sticker with a Price Look-Up (PLU) code, organically grown foods have a 5-digit number beginning with a 9 (5-digit numbers beginning with an 8 are GMO, 4-digit numbers are conventional - Check here for more PLU explanations).
    • You can also choose to shop at stores that stock exclusively organic produce so you don't have to worry about it. Two local options are El Cerrito Natural Grocery Store and their parter store, Berkeley Natural Grocery Store.
  • At a farmers' market, you can ask the vendor if their produce is organic, and how they grow their produce. Do note that the certification process is time-consuming and expensive, so some very small farms may not be able to afford the certification, even if their produce is pesticide-free and grown using sustainable practices. In these cases it's often best to get to know your local farmers and purchase from someone you trust to grow high quality produce, whether or not it has attained organic certification.

When to be picky

Ideally we should try to buy organic produce all the time, but sometimes due to cost, availability, or other factors, it isn't possible to go 100% organic. So how do we know when it's worth the price difference?

Luckily for us, Environmental Working Group produces an annual guide to produce, including the "Dirty Dozen" most-contaminated produce, the items we should take extra care to purchase organic), and the "Clean Fifteen" (least-contaminated items, the best options to choose if you must buy conventional produce). Check out their 2015 Report for more details. 

Influencing our local stores and markets

Every time we go to the grocery store, we are casting a vote with our money. With the money we spend on food, we are telling the stores what we want to see more of, and what we want to feed our families. If organic options are important to you, one way to use that power is to purchase organic food whenever possible for ourselves, our families, and the environment in general. The more we select organic, the more stores and farmers will produce using organic standards.


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