Tips on Buying Organic

The first time I heard the term "organic" was a few years ago when my daughter was getting ready to start drinking cow's milk for the first time. Someone had mentioned to me that I should buy her organic milk to reduce the amount of chemicals entering her small body. I took their advice and have never turned back. But organic food is not cheap. In fact, it can be up to 40 percent more expensive than regular foods. I like the idea of putting fewer chemicals in my body but I'm not sure my budget could handle an all-organic food supply. And considering my thumb is blacker than a freshly paved street, I'm not sure I could handle growing anything organically in my small back yard.

So who better to get tips on buying organic food than Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora, Washington's two organic restaurants? She adopted an organic lifestyle more than 30 years ago, around the same time that she opened Restaurant Nora. Twenty years later, it became the country's first all-organic restaurant, serving 95 percent organic food, and remains one of the few in the country. Here are her tips for buying organic:

Tip #1: If you're interested in going organic, start out small, says Pouillon. Buy one or two of the items you eat the most of and then gradually add other items when your pocketbook is ready.

Tip #2: Realize that going organic is much more than just about the food. The term organic often gets lumped into the whole green movement. And Pouillon agrees that buying organic food is also an environmental and health issue. In fact, she says organic food actually ends up saving consumers money in the end. "They're less sick and they miss less work and their kids miss less school," Pouillon says.

Tip #3: Buy organic food seasonally. It'll be in more abundance, which means it'll be cheaper. Winter foods include root vegetables like parsnips, potatoes and carrots, as well as cabbage, dark green vegetables like chard and kale and citrus fruit. Grains and legumes are also a good buy in the winter.

Tip #4: Buy organic food at farmer's markets when you can. Not only is this a great way to buy organic food that's in season but you get to talk to the farmers directly about how the food is grown. Plus you support the farmers who have invested in organic growing processes. "The more we buy organic, the more chance there is that the prices will eventually go down," says Pouillon.

Tip #5: Buying food that's labeled "all-natural" doesn't mean that it's organic. Organic food is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which certifies that the food is genuinely organic. For example, Restaurant Nora is inspected on a regular basis by USDA officials. All-natural doesn't require any certification or government approval.

Tip #6: Organic food can be just as processed as regular food but it's the ingredients that make it organic. Read labels to know what percentage of the ingredients are organic. Decide how much non-organic stuff you're willing to tolerate. "Sometimes you have to give in and not grow all the food yourself," Pouillon says. "You have to buy some things that are already, to a certain extent, prepared."

Good places to buy organic food:

  • Whole Foods Market: The chain sells natural and organic food, so read labels to make sure you're buying organic.
  • My Organic Market: This small local chain sells only organic food, as well as a large selection of environmentally friendly paper products.
  • Trader Joe's: This national chain also sells a good amount of organic and natural food so again, read labels.
  • Traditional food chains: Giant, Safeway and Harris Teeter have all introduced lines of organic food over the last few years, selling everything from organic produce to crackers.

    Do you buy organic? If so, who has the best deals? What are your money-saving tips for buying organic? Post a comment and let me know.

    By Tania Anderson |  January 15, 2008; 4:22 PM ET Grocery Deals
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    Please email us to report offensive comments.

    I'd like to see the studies backing up claim #2. As for benefiting the environment: Organic farms are lower yield than "regular" farms so more land has to be cleared and devoted to farming. Nothing in life is that cut and dry.

    Posted by: cleetus8 | January 15, 2008 5:21 PM

    In addition to the grocery stores that you listed, Wegman's has a large selection of organic and natural foods.

    Particularly, just this weekend Mary Ellen Burris' column in the circular talked about how organic carrots have finally reached the same price as the carrots they used to stock. Wegman's philosophy: if they can get organic produce for the same price as non-organic, then they are going to choose to stock organic. I like that logic.

    Posted by: agroshong | January 15, 2008 6:14 PM

    Yes!, Glut co-cop and Takoma Park-Silver Spring coop are very good sources for organic food too.

    Posted by: Anonymous | January 16, 2008 1:19 PM

    I don't worry about "organic" food per se. I do generally buy the "organic" milk, but that's because the date of expiry is always several weeks later than the date on the normal store brand. That's always confused me, actually--if it doesn't have fake stuff like preservatives, shouldn't it spoil sooner? But it doesn't.

    Posted by: Rich | January 17, 2008 10:32 AM

    I've found that organic milk doesn't spoil as fast as non-organic milk. When I bought non-organic, I'd usually end up throwing away the last, spoiled, third of the carton. (OK, I don't drink a lot of milk.) But I never throw away organic.

    Posted by: Mary Beth | January 17, 2008 1:07 PM

    Organic is, in fact, much better for the environment by not putting chemicals and pesticides into the air, the earth, and the water supply. In addition, for many crops, the yield of the organic crop is the same as the conventional one.

    Posted by: Laura | January 17, 2008 2:45 PM

    I'm amazed that people want to put fewer "chemicals" in their body. Water is a chemical. Most anything is, in fact. Do people want to keep matter out of their bodies?

    I agree, however, that extraneous, synthetic or harmful chemicals should be kept out of our foods.

    Posted by: Claire | January 18, 2008 11:51 AM

    MOMS Organic Markey, Roots, and Davids Natural Foods are good ones, too. And yes, it is expensive. I buy my daughter organic milk in small boxes for school, which she loves. It's about 75 cents each. But so convenient. And when I considered I spent a couple of bucks a day on coffee , it didn't seem high. In fact, afterI figured out how much I did spend on coffee, I started making it home. So now it's a moot point!

    Posted by: Anonymous | January 24, 2008 11:24 AM

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