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Organic Grocery Shopping: 5 Ways to Make the Best Choices

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Shopping for organic food can be an expensive endeavor, but these ideas will help you get the most bang for your buck and still help the environment.
Originally Published: 10/19/09

I love buying organic food and supporting the organic movement, but the sad truth is that organic produce and products are typically much more expensive than conventional products — sometimes as much as 50 percent more — and, like most people, I have a limited budget for grocery shopping. I try not to let my budget prevent me from making wise choices for my family and for the environment, though; after all, buying just one or two organic products is a step in the right direction.

If, like me, you can't afford to go all-organic in your kitchen, use this guide to help you choose when to buy organic, and when to opt for conventional versions. By following these tips, you can gradually increase the number of organic products that you purchase each week without putting a strain on your budget.

  1. Choose from the "cleanest" produce. There are certain fruits and vegetables that contain higher levels of pesticide contamination than others, according to the Environmental Working Group. You can download a list of what they call the Dirty Dozen (the produce with the highest pesticide load). The items topping the list include peaches, apples, and bell peppers. Meanwhile, the EWG's "Clean 15" list shows which produce usually has the least amount of pesticide residue, such as onions, avocados and pineapples. Items like these are usually okay to buy conventional.

  2. Consider other eco-friendly labels. Becoming an organic producer is a difficult, time-consuming, and costly endeavor, especially for smaller farmers and purveyors — that's part of the reason there's such a premium on organic foods — but you can make environmentally-sound choices by looking for other labels and terms beyond organic. Minimally treated produce, for instance, is not certified organic but it has also been grown with little or no chemicals. Fair-trade items (look for teas, coffees, and chocolates) are socially responsible; it means that workers are paid and treated fairly. Look for hormone-free and vegetarian-fed eggs, too, and consider locally grown produce, which helps the environment by dodging the pollution that can be generated when food is shipped long distances.

  3. Know what you're getting. When you're buying organic foods, particularly packaged foods, read the labels carefully so that you know you're getting what you pay for. Food that is made entirely from organic ingredients is labeled 100 percent organic, while food that is labeled simply "organic" is made from 95 percent organic ingredients, and "made with organic ingredients" means that you're getting about 70 percent organic ingredients.

  4. Find a good source. You don't need to limit yourself to natural food stores. Instead, look into joining a local co-op (when I lived in Brooklyn, I belonged to a co-op where I was able to pay 20 to 40 percent less than supermarket prices in exchange for working a monthly shift). Another way to save money: buy in bulk. Even stores like Whole Foods charge less for items like organic granola, nuts, and dried fruits and grains if you're willing to tote it home in your own bag, rather than in a package.

  5. Shop big box and private label. Finally, big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target are also seeing the growing interest in organic foods and are answering the demand by stocking organic foods, and because of their buying power, you can often score some good deals. Plus, many of these stores and supermarket chains have private-label organic options that can be significantly less than name-brand organic products.

What food choices do you make that help the environment? Share your comments below!

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.