Buying Organic 101

Buying Organic 101

If you remember that most of the food you find at your local grocery store is tainted with pesticides, it’s easy to get motivated to start looking for organic foods. But where do you find them? Shopping organic can be a challenge, so here are some tips on finding good, cheap, organic foods.

How Is Organic different from natural?

Manufacturers can stick a “natural ” label on anything they want to. There are no guidelines or laws regarding what’s considered natural. It’s a marketing phrase and has nothing to do with the food quality. Organic food refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. However, “organic ” doesn’t mean no pesticides were used, just that they weren’t synthetic pesticides.

It also means the grower didn’t grow bio-engineered genes (GMOs), or use petroleum or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Any animal raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products that is labeled “organic ” must have access to the outdoors. They must be given organic feed and not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal-by-products.

How can I tell if it’s truly organic?

Look for the green-and-white “USDA Organic ” seal. Any packaged organic food must be certified by a USDA-accredited certified agent. To be certified it must contain, excluding water and salt, at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Food with at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients may use the words “made with organic ingredients ” but they cannot bear the green and white seal.
Look for the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker on loose fruits and vegetables. Organic produce has a five-digit code beginning with the number 9. Non-organic food has four digits. For example: organically grown bananas will show the number 94011, compared to 4011 for those treated with chemicals and pesticides. If the PLU is a five-digits, but begins with 8 instead of 9, that means the item is genetically modified.

Organic doesn’t have to cost more

If you’re fortunate enough to live near a food co-op organic foods can be even less expensive than your typical grocery store fare. Not sure if there’s a food co-op in your city? Check for a coop near you.

Frugal Shopping at Chain Grocers

Score a bargain, even where there’s a dearth of co-ops, or Whole Food stores:

  • Check the inserts in your daily paper for coupons
  • Become a loyal shopper – pick up a free loyalty card at your local store. Once you check out, the register will give you coupons based on your purchases for your next trip
  • There are organic coupon sites. Check Mambo, Sprouts, All Natural Savings and Organic Deals for organic food/natural living coupons, and money savings ideas. What’s a good vegetable without something to spice it up? Simply Organic makes spices, seasoning mixes and baking mixes and they always have coupons on their website.
  • Check Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Kroger websites for weekly coupons.
  • Most stores take each other’s coupons, so don’t be afraid to use them all in one shopping trip at your most convenient or favorite store

Five Ways to Save Money When Buying Organic

  • Buy From the Source – Make it a point to go to your local Farmer’s Market. Many farmers and ranchers sell their goods there, but more importantly, you can also get information about how to buy from them directly. To find a market near you, visit which lists markets in all 50 states
  • Buy in Bulk – This is easier if you belong to a food co-op, but if you don’t, make your choices based on sales or look for “buy one, get one free ” offers.
  • Buy ugly produce – More and more stores are also discounting “ugly produce, ” which is perfectly good produce with no taste or quality differences. It’s just misshapen, odd looking or not appealing in a “perfect produce ” kind of way. Consumers prefer price over perfection, and grocers are listening. If your grocery doesn’t offer this option, ask if they will consider it.

Don’t buy 100% organic

If you can’t afford to go all organic, don’t worry. There are 10 things you don’t need to buy organic. Most of these include fruits and vegetables you peel, like:

  • Pineapple – You can’t eat the outer husk, so buy non-organic
  • Sweet Corn on the Cob, in its husk. – Most corn doesn’t have a lot of pesticide residue on it anyway because of the husk. Buy, strip and eat.
  • Maple Syrup – Maple syrup is actually sap from a maple tree. That sap is boiled down to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugars, giving it that awesome taste. But make sure you’re getting real maple syrup, not a substitute. Consumer Reports gave Trader Joe’s 100 Percent Vermont Maple Syrup as not only “Excellent, ” but the least expensive of the Maple Syrups they tested.
  • Cabbage and Iceberg Lettuce – just remove the outer layers of leaves first
  • Mangos – the skin isn’t edible, so wash, peel and eat the safe inner fruit
  • Kiwi – you can eat the skin of organic kiwi, but discard the skin of non-organic and you’re good
  • Quinoa – most manufacturers remove the coating, but the bitter outside makes it unappetizing to pests, and thus a low-pesticide plant to begin with.
  • Onions – Onions are 98% pesticide free, and once you peel the papery outer layer they’re pretty much 100% pesticide free, and good for you.
  • Seafood – No one uses pesticides on fish, but there is always the concern for PCBs, mercury and other contaminants. Look for wild caught or other sustainable practices seafood.
  • Avocados – like many other foods, the avocado has a tough, non-edible skin that keeps pesticides off of and out of the delicious inner fruit.

If you’re concerned about your health due to chemicals and pesticides, you should be. There are some dangerous chemicals in many foods that most of us don’t even know about. We’re past the days of large family farms, but that doesn’t mean we have to eat just anything sold at the grocery store. Don’t be afraid of the organic label. It simply means that the produce was grown more naturally, without the aid of chemicals and pesticides. You know, the way our ancestors ate. Plus, you get more vitamins and nutrients with every bite.