Organic grocery shopping
Photo: Digital Vision/Noel Hendrickson/Thinkstock
Patty Lovera, assistant director of the nonprofit organization Food & Water Watch has reviewed Lynn Okura's trip to the grocery store. She offers her critique along with tips on how to shop locally, ethically and organically.
Q: What are some of the things Lynn did right during her shopping trip?

A: The organic produce and the organic meats were great decisions. Having some goals for the shopping trip is really helpful. Grocery stores are tough places to make decisions because you are being bombarded with so much marketing information that it gets overwhelming. Lynn handled the pricing issues well and proved that it is possible to make room in your existing budget for the better quality food.

Q: What are some things did she did wrong (be brutal)—and what would you recommend instead?

A: Thinking about what produce is in season is important because if you are buying fresh produce that is out of season, it means it came from somewhere far away. And that means that it took a lot of energy to get it to you, it isn't as fresh as it could be because it took time to get to you, and it might be from another country where standards for growing produce are not as strong as the standards in America. And very little (less than 1 percent) of imported food is inspected at the border.

Q: With processed foods everywhere you turn, it's difficult to find a package that doesn't contain an ingredient your grandmother wouldn't recognize. What are some "unrecognizable" ingredients that should definitely be avoided?

A: One ingredient that should be avoided is milk protein concentrates (MPCs). This ingredient is mostly imported and is used to replace milk from domestic farmers in processed food supplies. It is created by putting milk through a filtration process that removes the all liquid and the minerals that are good for nutrition. Basically, MPCs are what is leftover when the most valuable components of milk are taken out. What is left is a dry substance with no nutritional value that is used as an additive in products like processed cheese, energy bars, crackers, etc. In addition to having no nutritional value, MPCs are largely imported and not FDA regulated. They drive down the price of domestically produced milk and put American dairy farmers out of business. And fewer domestic dairy farmers means less choices for consumers. Check out the Food & Water Watch Web page for more information on MPCs and what you can do to avoid them.

Another thing to think about in processed foods is sodium. There is a lot of hidden salt in certain processed foods, so make sure to check the packaging labels.
Q: When confronted with the choice between buying locally or buying organic, which is the best bet?

A: This is a hard question, and the answer is that it depends. Organic tells you specific things about how the food was raised, that's what the USDA organic seal indicates. Local is great, but I usually want to know more than that—like how was the animal raised, or how was the crop produced? So it's kind of a judgment call. The Food & Water Watch website has a fact sheet that talks about how to navigate labels for meat and poultry [and] that discusses this is more depth.

Q: The labels on packages, particularly meat and eggs, were confusing. Is it safe to assume that anything labeled "USDA approved" is a good buy? Are there any exceptions or other labels that are particularly important or misleading?

A: For meat and poultry, the USDA stamp just means it was processed in a plant that was inspected by USDA (which is required by law). So that is not really useful in distinguishing between brands. Some companies make other claims (like "antibiotic-free") that the USDA then certifies to be true. So that is an additional piece of information you can use. One important flag is that "natural" does not mean much when it comes to meat and poultry (or really any food). There is no meaningful standard for what products can use that label, so we at Food & Water Watch don't recommend looking for it. The fact sheet I mentioned above discusses a lot more of these.

Q: Many of our readers shop on a budget and may not be able to afford to completely change the way they shop. What is one change that is easy and affordable to make?

A: One way to think about it is to not focus specifically on the price of the organic version of a product compared to the conventional version, but to think about your overall budget. Are you willing to do without some processed snack food in order to spend more money on healthy produce or meat? Can you cut down on soda and use that money on other whole foods or frozen prepared foods, which tend to be expensive for the amount of food you get? One way to think about it is to try to spend as little time as possible in the middle of the grocery store (where the processed foods are) and try to get as much as you can from the edge of the store (produce, dairy, meat, bread). 

Another tip that might help is to think about stocking up on things when the price is good. This is when thinking about what is in season can help. If you can stock up on corn or berries or some other produce in the summer when it is plentiful and cheaper, you can put some in the freezer at home and use it later.
Q: For someone whose local grocery store does not offer organic options, what can they do?

A: One thing is to ask the store to start stocking these products. It's really no longer a fad, and almost every supermarket chain is offering some organic or local foods. Another is to look around for places other than the supermarket—like farmer's markets.

Q: Lynn used an organic cupcake as an example. Can you explain why you would choose an organic cupcake over a regular cupcake?

A: I don't think anyone is going to claim that a cupcake is health food, but if you are going to eat a cupcake, an organic cupcake does offer you a couple things—it was made with ingredients that were produced without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or genetically modified crops. So the ingredients come from a type of agriculture that is better for the environment.

Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the quality and safety of food and water. Participant Media (the production company behind Food, Inc.) has partnered with Food & Water Watch on a social action campaign designed to educate the public on the dangers of highly processed foods and provide them with the knowledge and tools to make a difference in their own nutrition. To learn more about the Food, Inc. social action campaign, visit

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