Tuesday, April 10, 2012

From our Nutritionist, Megan: Organics on a Budget!

Organic Shopping Sense 

You’ve made the choice to get in shape and eat a more healthy diet by increasing veggie intake, eating less white refined carbs and sugar, and possibly choosing organic foods more often. Organic foods and products have become wildly popular in recent years as people have become more concerned about their health and the environment. Is it necessary to go 100% organic? If money is not a problem then go for it, but most people have a fairly strict food budget. I would love to be totally organic, I would also like someone to prepare delicious meals offsite and deliver it right to my table. Oh, to be a Hollywood star…but I digress.

You can optimize your organic budget by targeting foods that typically contain more pesticides than other foods. Also, when shopping for these products you may come across confusing terms and labels or products without labels.  The following information can help eliminate the confusion and make you a savvy organic shopper.

 Organic Terms

In 2002 the USDA set strict standards under the National Organic Program for organically grown food and livestock. According to the USDA, organic means “the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”  In order to be labeled “organic” a government certifier must inspect the farm where the food was grown (or animals raised) to ensure these standards have been met. You can look for the USDA Organic Seal to easily spot organic products.

·        The terms “100% Organic” and “Organic”, which contains 95% certified organic ingredients, may contain the USDA Organic seal.  

·        A product may state “Made with Organic Ingredients” if it contains at least 70% certified organic ingredients, but it may not use the USDA Organic seal.

·        For products with less than 70% certified organic ingredients, they can only identify the organic ingredients in the product’s ingredient list.

Organic livestock – and their products, such as milk and eggs, must have never been given antibiotics or hormones for any reason in order to bear the seal in addition to eating organic feed. If you also don’t want to unknowingly consume meat or milk from cloned animals, then organic is the way to go. The FDA has declared cloned products safe for human consumption and they won’t require any labeling telling you that your milk or meat is from a clone. Gross!! 

The issue of organic fish is still being debated. You can visit the Environmental Defense Fund at http://apps.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1521  to learn more about choosing fish that is healthy for you and the planet.  


A “GMO” is a genetically modified organism. The most widely grown GMO crops include soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton. When a food has been genetically modified it can contain genes from other species that would otherwise not occur naturally. This is usually done to give more “desirable” characteristics like insect resistance or a longer shelf life. The long term effects of GMOs on the environment and health are not yet known. GMO products cannot be labeled as organic.

Natural vs. Organic

If a product is labeled as “natural” it does not have to be organic. The term “natural” is not regulated for products other than meat and poultry, but typically means a product is free of artificial additives.  

Go Organic with These First

I find there is no need to buy organic chips and cookies at double the price of conventional unless it helps you eat less of them or there is big sale. We should be limiting intake of these foods anyway. Start with the basics: meat, eggs, dairy, and produce.

Beef, chicken, and pork The EPA says meat contains higher levels of pesticides than produce. This makes sense because the animal eats food contaminated with pesticides and these chemicals accumulate in the animal. Choose lower fat cuts of meat as pesticides tend to be stored in the fat. Try to eat less meat rather than more meat in general. I “dilute” the amount of meat in dishes and soups by adding more vegetables and beans. My tacos include only about 50% meat and the rest is black beans, onion, and peppers. The same goes for my meatballs. I usually add an entire box of frozen spinach, a chopped onion, and use brown rice instead of bread crumbs. This helps us consume less meat, eat more veggies, and also stretches our organic meat dollar.

Dairy and Eggs Conventional dairy and egg producers are more likely to use antibiotics and growth hormones. And, since these are animal products they would also accumulate more pesticides than produce.

Certain produce. The Environmental Working group (http://www.foodnews.org/index.php) has compiled a list ranking fruits and vegetables based on their pesticide content, after washing and peeling.

These fruits and vegetables are known as the Dirty Dozen and contain the HIGHEST amounts of pesticides:

Apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, and kale

It would be healthier to buy or grow the organic version of these fruits and vegetables.

These conventionally grown fruits and vegetables contain the LOWEST amounts of pesticides:

Onion, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangos, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, and mushrooms

If your budget doesn’t allow you to buy all organic, you don’t have to feel guilty about these conventional fruits and vegetables.

Do I buy everything organic on the Dirty Dozen list? No, but I try to buy frequently consumed items organic. If you eat an apple everyday, you would be wise to choose organically grown apples. By switching to organic, you will greatly reduce your pesticide exposure from conventionally grown apples. My son usually eats 2-3 apples a day, for this reason I buy organic apples most of the time.

Organic or Local?

Here’s a new dilemma. Do you choose organic tomatoes from across the country or choose tomatoes grown in your town by a small scale farmer that may or may not be organic? Well, I have been trying to buy my food as local as possible. The best scenario is to find a local organic farm that has been certified organic. Becoming a certified organic farm is a lengthy and expensive process that not all farmers can afford however. So talk to the farmers at your farmer’s market. They may have the organic philosophy without the certification. You can also become part of a CSA. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. These farms let you pay to join them and then share in the harvest. You can find a list of CSA farms at http://www.localharvest.org/. I have been a member of Worden Farm in Punta Gorda, FL for 4 years and it has been a wonderful experience. From November through April I get a large box of organic, local vegetables every week.

The last thing I want to leave you with is a feeling of guilt. When it comes to nutrition and feeding our families we all do our best with what we have access to and can afford. Organic or not, always serve fruits and vegetables, fresh, frozen, or even canned if that’s what you’ve got!



Megan Witt, RD, LD  


The National Organic Program

Organic Consumers Association

Environmental Working Group

Food News

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  1. Thank you for such an informative article! So much good information! Fred and I are currently shopping for a CSA. :)


  2. This is really good information, right on target. With limited resources and opportunities, we have to pick our food preferences carefully, where our funding can get the greatest return. The only place I really find concern is with "Natural", which I consider a marketing term designed to deceive consumers about marginal nutritional content and inorganic origin, often used to pass off junk food to less informed consumers as healthful.