I got the following question from a reader today, and wanted to provide my thoughts and see what other readers have to say as well:
“I would love to know where you get your information and knowledge about green/organic products and produce. I live a relatively eco-friendly lifestyle in almost every department but grocery shopping. I’ve read so much contradictory information about what is “really” green/organic, plus I’ve read about how companies can be a little sneaky in labeling, including Whole Foods. I want to be able to buy something knowing that it is locally, sustainably produced, with as little packaging as possible, and ideally, still inexpensive. In the spring I will jump on the local CSAs and farmer’s markets, which are just now shutting down for the winter. I also plan to research urban gardening as we have an apartment w/ porches but no yard. But if you can offer any other hints or advice about this topic, I’d love to know!”
First, I have to say that I’m by no means an expert. Organic living, sustainability, and nutritious food are some of my favorite topics, so I read extensively about them. In general, I’ve found that mainstream media (tv, popular internet stories, magazines, etc.) often promote packaged “health” foods, so I tend to avoid those sort of sources. I read books about nutrition and sustainability, and I’ve recently become a fan of the magazine Mother Earth News, which frequently has food-related articles. In general, I try to buy food as close to whole as I can. My grocery cart is usually full of produce, brown rice, various dried legumes (which I cook in our solar oven), and staples like flour, olive oil, eggs, rice milk, baking powder, etc. If you look in my freezer, you’ll find large bags of organic fruits and vegetables, which is in my opinion the best thing about Costco. There are no frozen dinners, no ice cream, really not much of anything with more than two or three ingredients on the label. We used to buy Morningstar Farms frozen veggie patties at Costco. But they’re not organic, and I read that they use GMOs in their patties, so we no longer buy those – they were the only thing in our freezer I can think of that were processed. [edit – I just looked in the freezer, and we do also have a couple basic tomato/cheese pizzas that we use when we’re in a time crunch. We add veggies to them and throw them in the oven when we need a fast meal. We use one or two per month. They obviously have several ingredients, and are processed. But most of the time I make pizza from scratch]
I’m a fan of local as well, but I live in an area that is cold and snowy for five or six months a year, so during the winter there isn’t much local stuff available. We’re very excited about having our hydroponic garden this winter, as we’ll have homegrown – very local – produce all winter. And our greenhouse should keep our kale and swiss chard going most of the winter. But the veggie box that is delivered to our door every week goes from being local stuff in the summer to produce from the southwestern part of the US during the winter.
Basically, my favorite tip when it comes to food labels is that food without labels is best (an apple doesn’t have an ingredient list). For food with labels, I look for things that have the least amount of ingredients (ie, a container of cocoa that just says “organic cocoa” on the ingredient list), nothing I can’t pronounce, nothing that isn’t an actual food. That eliminates the vast majority of most grocery store products. I don’t eat meat, although my husband does. He buys free-range, grass fed, organic meat with no hormones or antibiotics used in the production. Because this meat is quite a bit more expensive than conventional meat, he doesn’t eat very much of it. We do eat eggs, and I admit to a bit of a confusion with regards to eggs. I only buy eggs that are cage free, and organic. But I believe eggs can be labeled “free range” as long as the birds have an open door leading to the outside. Even if they never go out that door (which apparently they won’t, if they’ve gotten used to living indoors). So while my ideal eggs would come from a chicken who scratches around in the dirt eating bugs and seeds all day, I don’t think that’s what’s going on – even on the “free range” farms that produce most of the eggs in our grocery stores. I am planning to look for a local farmer who sells truly free range eggs on a small scale, but I guess I’ve been procrastinating on this one and haven’t gotten to it yet.
We don’t eat much sugar or dairy products. We eliminated almost all sugar from our diet in 2005, which is incidentally the last time either of us was sick. In the last three+ years, neither of us has had a cold, flu, headache, infection of any kind. We make vegetables the main part of our diet, with whole grains, legumes, and fruit rounding out the mix. For us, the way we feel gives us an indication that our eating habits are working for us.
I make a green smoothie for us every day. I use greens from our garden, sprouts that we grow in the cupboard, and various fresh or frozen produce that I have on hand. This is the easiest way I know of to increase the amount of greens and veggies you eat. We also have vegetables with every meal, either cooked or in a salad.
We’re flexible when we’re at someone else’s house – we’ll eat whatever they serve. But for ourselves, we never buy anything with high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, or trans fats (labels that say hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil). And we almost never buy anything with food coloring or preservatives.
It’s true that there’s a lot of deception in packaging (a good reason to try to avoid packaged stuff if you can). Organic food in the US does have to meet the USDA organic standards. But companies can use words like “natural” without much in the way of regulation. And ingredient labels can be confusing, which is why I like foods that don’t have many ingredients.
I’m not the most savvy shopper out there. I don’t go from store to store searching for deals, and I rarely use coupons (but this is because coupons aren’t usually for single-ingredient items). But by eating virtually all of our meals at home, by avoiding processed food, and by limiting the amount of high-dollar foods like meat and dairy products, we’re able to eat organic food without completely breaking the bank. One example of how we save money on food is oatmeal. We buy organic oats in 50 pound bags, and that’s what we eat for breakfast, with a little cinnamon and some raisins mixed in. I cannot imagine how much higher our food bill would be if we ate organic boxed cereal every day.
So what do you think? I know that eating organic food and paying attention to what’s in our food is much more popular these days than it was even a few years ago. But I know a lot of people still find it a very confusing area. I’m still learning all the time (I just stopped buying Morningstar veggie patties last month). What ideas do you have for keeping the food bill reasonable while still protecting your health and the health of our planet?