The Truth About That Organic Avocado

what you should know when navigating the produce section of your grocery store

Photo credit- Vegan Photo via Visual hunt / CC BY

I have never enjoyed going to the grocery store, mostly because it was one of the chores my mother gave me growing up. She would drop me off with a list long enough to fill two carts of what she needed to feed our family of six and pick me up an hour later. I did not enjoy one minute of it, especially as a teenager who would rather spend her afternoon hanging out with her girlfriends.

Although my preference is to go the farmer’s market because I like the social aspect of being with the local growers, when I do go to the grocery store I still try to get in and out as quickly as possible, but that rarely happens. Living with a green heart means among many things reading and understanding labeling so I can better navigate my way through the aisles. As someone who knows to reach for organic before anything else I can still find myself overwhelmed between what the difference is between organic, locally grown, responsibly sourced, conventional and natural besides the price, especially when I am in the fresh produce section.

So I enlisted Alexandra and my research department to help me become better informed. Here’s what I found out.

Organic is regulated by the National Organic Program

The National Organic Program (NOP) was created by the USDA in 1990. The standards created to bear a USDA certified organic seal does not reflect the nutritional value of the food but it does mean that it is pesticide and GMO free and no synthetic fertilizers are used. Third party certification agencies are used to inspect and verify the farms, packing, processing and distributors are complying with the NOP standards.

The USDA established four categories of organic

  • 100% organic can be used for products that are 100% organic excluding salt and water.
  • An organic label can be used for any product that is made with 95% organic ingredients provided that 5% are not commercially available as organic.
  • “Made with organic” means at least 70% of the ingredients are organically produced products.
  • Any product that is less than 70% organic can not bear the seal but may specify the specific ingredients that are organic.

“Local” does not necessarily mean it was produced from a farmer in your state

The 2008 Farm Act reads that any food with a “local” label can only be transported less than 400 miles from where the product was produced. That means that the “local corn” in a grocery store in Richmond, Virginia could have been grown in New Jersey. Unless that produce also includes the USDA Certified Organic seal it may have been grown with pesticides and GMOs.

“Natural” labeling does not mean organic

There are no USDA guidelines for what is labeled “natural” when it comes to produce or anything else. “Natural” generally means no artificial ingredients or preservatives but still may contain GMOs, antibiotics, growth hormones and other toxic chemicals.

Responsibly sourced is also unregulated

There are no guidelines for this label, however the interpretation is that the product was produced in an environment that is considered socially and sustainably responsible. For example that might pertain to the types of soil and irrigation methods, rotation of crops, the use of plastics in packaging, and the conditions in which employees work.

Conventional is the opposite of Organic

While conventionally grown might have some degree of organic in production it is not enough to meet the bare minimum of 70% to legally use the term. Generally conventional methods of growing include the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and weed killers that are harmful to your health.

GMOs may be hiding in anything not labeled organic

GMOs are genetically modified organisms. Originally created to improve nutritional value, to make crops more durable and less susceptible to drought, GMOs are very controversial and have been linked to health issues including allergies and organ toxicity. While all of the European Union including sixty-four countries globally require producers to label the use of GMOs in their products, there are no USDA regulations. There is however the Non-GMO project, a non-profit created to educate consumers and verify that brands meet their non-GMO certification standards.

Those number on the stickers on your vegetables and fruits mean something

Those little stickers on your produce are called PLU’s which is short for price look up but they provide more information than what you’re going to be charged. A five digit number that starts with a nine means it’s organic, four digits with a 3 or 4 mean probably conventional, and a five digit code with an 8 means it’s been genetically modified.

Go organic or go home

Reaching for organic is the best way to ensure you are eating fruits and vegetables free of pesticides, chemical additives and GMOs as the organic regulations are more thoroughly vetted than most of the US food system. The extra cost may seem off putting but it’s the best long term investment you can make for your health and the health of the planet.

Staying informed is also important especially at a time when many of the regulations that are in place are in question. One of my favorite resources to help me live with a green heart and stay up to date is the Environmental Working Group which in addition to many useful tools, publishes a Clean Fifteen and a Dirty Dozen list which helps me and I hope will help you in your shopping. It’s also where I learned that avocados are #2 on the clean list!

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