What are the most important foods to buy organic?
Answer: Given the usual higher prices of organic versus conventionally grown foods, it can be a challenge to get the biggest bang for our buck while eating healthy and avoiding the ingestion of synthetic chemicals along with our nutrients. One approach, say some experts, is to only buy organic when the actual edible parts of a non-organically grown food might come into direct contact with toxic fertilizers and pesticides.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that consumers can reduce their chemical exposure by some 80 percent by either avoiding the most contaminated conventionally grown fruits and vegetables altogether, or by eating only the organic varieties. To help us sort through what not to buy, the group offers a handy Shopper's Guide to Pesticides, which fits on a small piece of paper that you can keep in your pocket and have handy on grocery trips. You can print it out for free from EWG's FoodNews.org website, or you can download it as a free App for your iPhone.
To make it easy to use, EWG has distilled its analysis into two lists. The first, "Dirty Dozen: Buy These Organic," lists foods that when grown conventionally contain the largest amounts of pesticide and fertilizer residues. These include peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard, greens, potatoes and (imported) grapes. Consumers should definitely spend the extra money for organic versions of these foods.
On the other side of the coin, EWG's "Clean 15" list includes foods that contain the least amount of chemical residues when grown conventionally. These include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangos, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and honeydew. It's OK to eat conventionally grown varieties of these foods.
EWG analysts developed the "Clean 15" guide using data from some 89,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce conducted between 2000 and 2008 and collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What's the difference, you may ask? EWG found that by eating five conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen list, a consumer on average ingests 10 different pesticides; those who stick to the Clean 15 list ingest less than two.
Other foods you and your family eat, such as meats, cereals, breads and dairy products, might also be exposing you to unwanted chemicals. According to EWG, the direct health benefits of organic meat, eggs and milk are less clear, but you should play it safe by sticking with all-natural, free-range, grass-fed meats that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and by choosing only organic dairy products.
Thanks to increasing demand, more and more food purveyors are putting extra emphasis on organics. This will ultimately result in both lower prices and larger selections. Natural food market aisles are already teeming with organic choices - and chances are your local supermarket or big-box store has introduced organic versions of many popular items. Consequently, there has never been a better time to take stock of what you are feeding yourself and your family, and to make changes for better health.
I know that local food has health and environmental benefits, but my local grocer only carries a few items. Is there a push for bigger supermarkets to carry locally produced food?
Answer: By eating locally sourced foods, we strengthen the bond between local farmers and our communities, stay connected to the seasons in our part of the world, promote crop diversity, and minimize the energy intensive, greenhouse-gas-emitting transportation of food from one part of the world to another. Also, since local crops are usually harvested at their peak of freshness and typically delivered to stores within a day, customers can be sure they are getting the tastiest and most nutritious forms of the foods they like.
Luckily for consumers and the environment, local produce and other foods are now more widely available than they have been for decades. The first national grocery chain to prioritize local producers, perhaps not surprisingly, was natural foods retailer Whole Foods, which was buying from local farmers and ranchers since it opened its first store in 1980 in Austin, Texas. Today each of the company's 270-plus stores in 38 U.S. states prioritizes local sourcing - so much so that its customers take it for granted. Whole Foods' relationships and distribution arrangements with local producers serve as models for the leading national grocery chains, many of which are beginning to source some produce locally when the season is right.
Some are taking more initiative than others. Perhaps most notable is Wal-Mart. Back in 2008 the company committed to sourcing more local fruits and vegetables to keep produce prices down and provide affordable, fresh and healthy choices. Today more than 2,800 Wal-Mart Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets across the country rely on a diverse network of small local growers to provide produce - making Sam Walton's company the nation's largest purchaser of local produce. During summer months, at least one-fifth of the produce available in Wal-Mart stores is grown within the same state as the given store.
The company's Heritage Agriculture program encourages farms within a day's drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that the company would otherwise have to source from so far away that freshness would be jeopardized and the fuel burned and greenhouse gases emitted in the process would be substantial. While the Heritage program currently accounts for only 4 to 6 percent of the company's total domestic produce sales, the company is aiming for 20 percent within the next few years.
Other big grocery chains aren't far behind. Safeway, one of the top three grocery chains in the country, prides themselves on local sourcing, getting nearly a third of its produce nationwide from local/regional growers. In heavy agricultural regions like California, the figure can be as high as 45 percent. The company has also made a big push into organic products, just like its biggest competitor, Wal-Mart.
If the chain grocer near you doesn't do a good job stocking locally sourced food, there are alternatives. Community Supported Agriculture programs, in which consumers "subscribe" to the produce of a given farm by paying monthly dues that entitles them to a box of fresh produce every week, are more popular than ever, as are local farmers' markets, food co-ops and independent natural foods markets. To find local food near you, visit the Local Harvest, which lists organic food sources by ZIP code and offers a wealth of resources for those looking to learn more about where their food comes from and how it is produced.