Posts Tagged ‘environmental working group’

Organic Food Fight

August 6, 2009

Mulling over whether it’s worth spending more on organic greens, nectarines, or milk? You’ve got company. The assumption that organic produce tastes better and is better for you than conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables is as bruised as an organic farmers’ market peach brought home on a bike.

fruit-vegetable-mosaicPhoto by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

Consider this: A major study out of Britain which garnered loads of press last week, concludes that there’s no evidence that organic produce and livestock products are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 50 years of scientific literature on the subject, and focused on 55 rigorous studies.

Of course, not everyone buys organic for its health benefits. Some choose organic for environmental, animal welfare, or farm worker concerns, all of which were outside the scope of the U.K. report. Many buy organic apples, berries, corn, or eggs because of what’s not in these foods: no chemical pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. No irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge, and no genetically modified ingredients. “I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably,” writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle in a recent Food Politics post, echoing the sentiment of others. “I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics.”

Nestle sites superior taste as another factor in forking out more for organic, and many consumers concur. There’s nothing like the juicy, flavorful first bite of a richly-red, ripe, organic, locally-grown, sun-warmed, freshly-picked tomato to make organic converts out of people used to mushy, bland, pale, cold-storage, conventionally-grown tomatoes flown in from afar to sit on supermarket shelves, right?

Wait, not everyone agrees. The notion that organic produce is always more delicious than conventional fruit & veggies has also been called into question of late.  Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, a self-dubbed, non-believer in organics, notes that the label doesn’t guarantee superior quality or taste.

He hit a nerve: His recent column received around 90 comments — the overwhelming majority in agreement with Parsons’ position.  The idea that if you aren’t eating fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, then you might as well be “mainlining Agent Orange or handing your money straight to some giant industrial agricultural corporation,” is inaccurate, writes Parsons. “Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one,” he adds. “For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.”

Still, sales of organics have doubled since the federal government began certifying food as such about seven years ago (though it still represents a tiny percentage of overall food sales). Most U.S. grocery stores now stock some organic produce or products, and 1 out of 3 Americans have purchased organic food at least once.

What’s in the label, anyway? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition is essentially a marketing term that has little to do with food safety or nutrition, says a spokesperson for the department in a recent New York Times piece by food writer Mark Bittman. The government’s designation also falls far short of the desires of many organic farmers and advocates, notes Bittman. Some small-scale sustainable farmers can’t afford to go through the government’s organic certification process, or don’t think the label is meaningful so don’t bother. And much of what is produced in America under the umbrella of organic food is part of large-scale food production practices.  (Check out the documentary Food, Inc. for more details.)

Given the bad economy, even people who are predisposed to buy organic are finding themselves on a tighter food budget and making choices on what organic produce to buy based on lists like the “Dirty Dozen”, from the Environmental Working Group. (Of course, the assumption that organic equals more expensive isn’t always true either. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean “local.” )

Bittman argues in his recent post that the national debate on food should focus more on how to eat well — sticking to real ingredients, eating more plant-based food and less animal products and highly-processed foods, cooking from scratch (aka author Michael Pollan‘s thesis) — rather than whether or not you load up on organic versus conventional goods.

(Interesting aside: Judging by another recent research review, eating well is harder to do now than in the past.  A study published this year in HortScience revealed that the nutritional content of today’s conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is 5 to 40 percent lower than produce picked 50 years ago in the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps another reason to grow your own?)

Despite the recent ballyhoo, farmers’ markets overflowing with organic food continue to draw crowds willing to pony up good money for the stuff. On a recent Sunday at one stand, the line for squash, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and other summer bounty rivaled the wait to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain. When this shopper got to the head of the queue she overheard one seller say to the other, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

So, then, readers, where do you stand on the organic debate? Is buying organic produce worth it or a waste of money? Share your opinions below.

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Frugal Gourmet: How to Eat Well on a Budget

July 31, 2009

Yuriko Gamo Romer and her family no longer stroll down the street to eat sushi, burgers, or pasta at the restaurants that dot the main drag of their neighborhood in San Francisco.

The Silas-Gonzalez clan from Oakland now spends more time cooking meals from scratch. The dads in both these families were recently laid off, so they need to find ways to keep food costs in check.

silas-gonzalez-familyPhoto of Silas-Gonzalez family by Sarah Henry

With the jobless rate in California hovering around 11 percent, you don’t have to look far to find people impacted by the recession. (Three out of nine families from my former mamas group have been hit by job loss in the last year, including the two families in this piece and, um, me.) After housing, food is often the next biggest expense a family faces. Bad-for-you food is cheap but these folks are committed to getting nutritious meals on the table at a reasonable price.

How to make those dollars stretch at dinnertime? Eat in. Both families agree that the first thing to cut from your budget is routine dining out — at kid-friendly restaurants, taqueria joints, or the museum cafe. Nowadays they make favorite foods like burritos or sushi at home for a fraction of the cost they’d pay eating out.

They’ve also become smarter shoppers. They buy in bulk at stores like Costco and spend more time comparison shopping. Julie Silas says she now knows the exact price of most food items that she buys  — and can usually estimate, within a dollar, how much the bill will be at the checkout.

Neither household eats a lot of meat, another cost saver. They site cheaper sources of protein such as tofu, beans, and peanut butter as staples in their kitchens. (Julie and Yuriko both mention with glee that Costco sells creamy, organic peanut butter for dollars less than the price of other grocery stores.)

They also accept assistance. Julie’s neighbors passed on their Community Supported Agriculture box of produce once a month to the family of four. “That’s such an awesome gift; it really makes a difference in our lives,” she says, while making a stir fry with green beans and onions plucked from the CSA box. Yuriko’s mom bought her an electric skillet so she can make grilled dishes at home.

Each family has a small number of items that they’ll pay more for. For Yuriko it’s high-quality short grain rice from a Japanese market. “But relatively speaking, rice is cheap, so that’s not too much of a luxury,” she says. Julie can’t live without goat cheese — her girls love it — but found an affordable source at Trader Joe’s.

Neither family feels that nutrition or health has been compromised in their efforts to trim the family food budget. Both Julie and Yuriko estimate they now spend 20-25 percent less on food.  Yuriko says she finds herself thinking about the nutritional content of a grocery item and makes purchasing decisions accordingly. So jugs of juice, while popular with her husband and son, don’t make the cut. She’d rather spend that money — around $4-6 a bottle — on whole fruit, so her family gets the benefit of fiber as well as vitamins. Julie buys less organic fruits and vegetables these days, using the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticides in produce as a reference. That means organic apples, strawberries, and spinach, but conventional avocados, kiwis, and bananas to help keep the shopping bill down.

Both families say that they’ve discovered an unexpected benefit of unemployment. By going back to basics they’ve become more creative cooks. “A whole organic chicken, which costs us about $12, can form the basis of a homemade chicken noodle soup; the shredded meat ends up in enchiladas or a pot pie, and leftover broth serves as the sauce for a third meal,” says Isidro Gonzalez. In comparison, a package of chicken breasts costs around $8 and only provides one dinner for the family.  Yuriko prepares favorite Japanese recipes for family and friends more frequently now. She’ll make sukiyaki, a beef and vegetable dish, and okonomiyakia, savory pancakes, and each dish can feed about six people for the price of just one of these items at a restaurant. “We’ve had some really affordable feasts,” she says, “by making food at home.”

Find more easy ways to make your food buck go further from the makers of the movie Food Stamped.

How has the bad economy affected your eating habits? Have you found new ways to eat cheap and eat well? Share your cost-cutting tips below.