How to Shop for Organic Food

Does the organic label always indicate the healthiest choice?



Illustration By Victoria Marcelino

Regular readers of this space no doubt do their best to stay healthy. Things can get complicated, though, when even a stop at the supermarket to grab chicken for a weekend barbecue finds you standing before an array of packaged poultry bearing labels that trumpet products as antibiotic-free, hormone- and steroid-free, pasture-raised, GMO-free or organic. You hesitate, wondering whether the organic chicken will pretty much cover all the bases and therefore amount to the best choice — and whether the organic item is worth its higher price.

Food labeled as organic is not always the best choice, but it can be the right choice for a variety of reasons. In deciding whether it makes sense to dig into your wallet to buy organic food, experts say, let the labels and your values be your guide.

First of all, when it comes to organic food, consumers should know that they can trust the “USDA organic” seal. “If [food] is labeled ‘USDA organic,’ it follows a very certain, very rigorous set of standards that are related to how the food is grown and the practices of the farm,” says Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire. In contrast, when a food producer does not show the USDA organic label, consumers cannot feel as confident about the product and its origins. The guy down the street, for example, who raises chickens in his backyard and puts out a handmade sign advertising his “organic” eggs (or even a larger local farm that does the same) might indeed be selling organic eggs, but then again, might not be.

Seal or no seal, however, there is much to gain from buying locally produced food, whether the food is organic or not. Not only will local food be fresher and therefore likely to be nutritionally superior to similar products that have been shipped from overseas or across the country, Nelson says, local food is usually much more sustainable and Earth-friendly, and tastier than food that has traveled from afar.

“We need to support our local farmers, even if they’re not USDA-certified,” Nelson says. She cautions, though, that consumers should trust their intuition and their eyes when judging the overall quality of a farm. “If ... it’s an unkempt farm, don’t buy anything from that farm.” But generally, if a product is sourced regionally or locally, “I don’t really care if it is organic or non-organic,” Nelson says. “I care that I’m supporting the open spaces in my region and the local farmers, and most farmers are doing their darnedest to do the best practices they can — especially in the state of New Hampshire.”

In addition, consumers should be aware that organic food is not necessarily healthful food: Deep-fried organic potato chips, for example, are not good for you. Likewise, an organic label on a six-pack of soda does not necessarily indicate healthfulness. “It’s still a sugar-sweetened beverage,” Nelson says. “It’s just organically procured sugar.”

Organic labeling lets consumers know how food was grown and procured, but “it doesn’t necessarily tell you how healthy food is,” Nelson says, so consumers need to avoid letting labels confuse or distract them from making smart choices. Look carefully at all the facts on labels, including the nutrition panel, when purchasing food.

When deciding between organic and non-organic food, some people will want to choose organic every time based on principles regarding factors such as the environment and animal welfare. But since research has not proven that organic is always better for us, Nelson says, consumers who can’t or don’t want to always buy organic might want to decide on a case-by-case basis. “It’s probably a better bet,” for example, to buy organic strawberries, grapes and apples rather than their non-organic counterparts, Nelson says, because those foods routinely make the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of common fruits and vegetables that tend to be most generously coated with pesticides (see sidebar). Of course, you can wash the food to try to clean the outside of produce, but pesticides will likely remain inside the food, Nelson notes.

No matter which way you choose — organic or non-organic — ideally, you will avoid the supermarket altogether, Nelson says. “I would rather buy from a local farmer because they are probably using integrated pest management [and] minimal pesticides, which is the most common practice in New England, and I would rather [buy a local farmer’s] produce than buy [an organic product] from God knows where” that is available in the supermarket.

For sure, the reasons for choosing organic or local can be complicated and go way beyond nutrition. Ultimately, consumers must strike a balance in choosing where their food comes from, but if the price tag isn’t always a deal breaker for you, Nelson suggests focusing on the farming practices behind the food. Many local farmers use sound farming principles, “regardless of whether they are organic or not,” she says; just because a local product was grown conventionally rather than organically doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad.

“I hope people, when they’re thinking about this, [know that] it’s not only about their own health, but it’s also about keeping open spaces and thinking about the people that are growing this food,” Nelson says. “The upstream and downstream piece of this is really important to be conscious about. It’s our rivers and everything else ... It’s not just about us, but also about the environment and our open spaces.”


The Real Deal

Given a choice, most everyone would prefer not to consume pesticide-laden food. You can trust that products bearing the “USDA organic” label are free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and are certified to meet strict and wide-ranging regulations covering the full scope of food production, from seeds used and soil quality to weed and pest management or, in the case of meat producers, animal-raising practices, including the living conditions of the animals and the prohibited use of antibiotics and hormones.

In the case of processed foods that contain multiple ingredients, manufacturers who wish to display the USDA organic seal of approval must use only organic ingredients in making their food, and their products must be free from artificial preservatives, colors and flavors, aside from minor exceptions such as using pectin in jam or baking soda in baked goods. (Different rules apply to products that claim to be “made with” certain organic ingredients, and to products that are “certified transitional,” meaning they are on their way to becoming organic.)

Growers of USDA organic products must document their farming practices and undergo annual inspections. According to the USDA, “Tracing organic products from start to finish is part of the USDA organic promise.”

For more information, visit usda.gov/media/blog/2016/07/22/understanding-usda-organic-label.

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