Rising food prices may make us think twice before buying an organic food option. But there are ways to save on food without compromising health or the environment.
Have you found yourself taking organic foods off your shopping list, only to put them back on again? Since the current economic downturn, consumers have had to wrestle with rising food prices and duelling data about the safety of pesticide residues on food.
Would you like pesticides with that?
“Pesticides are toxic by design—they’re meant to eradicate bugs, weeds, and fungus,” says Sara Sciammacco. A spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in Washington, DC, she says, “It’s just common sense for people to avoid making them a staple in their daily diets, especially children and pregnant women.”
Organic agriculture doesn’t permit the use of toxic chemicals, but are often higher-priced organics affordable on a budget?
Save and eat well
It’s no surprise that someone who wrote a book called Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet All on $5 a Day or Less (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2011) is a passionate spokesperson for organic food.
Over the phone from her home in North Carolina, author Linda Watson explains how her budget food-shopping guide, menu planner, and cookbook can lead to major savings.
“It’s such a myth that in order to eat organic you have to be a well-heeled yuppie,” Watson says in a friendly Southern drawl.
Even given the cost difference between the US and Canadian food market, her claim of five dollars per day is inspiring.
The following seven steps are proven health and money savers according to Watson.
TIP #1: Save a third of your food bill by eliminating waste
Instead of composting that limp organic celery, use it in a stew. Keep leftover veggie water and organic stems to make your own soup stock.
TIP #2: Shop with the seasons for thrift and variety
Do you stand around on one foot in the grocery store trying to decide what vegetables to buy for dinner? If it’s December, skip the out-of-season asparagus.
TIP #3: Make sure the bulk of what you buy is hardy
If it lasts longer in the field, it will last longer in your home.
TIP #4: Don’t shun your natural food store
Health food stores often have the best price for organics compared to supermarket organics. It makes sense that the store that buys organics in the largest quantities often gets the better price.
TIP #5: Choose your organics with care
If you choose only a few organic items to splurge on, pick eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and meat. The US Environmental Protection Agency warns that a family of persistent toxic chemicals called dioxins tend to accumulate in animal fat stores and in the tissues of humans who eat them. Dioxins are a byproduct of some chemical pesticides and herbicides and are classified as “known human carcinogens.”
TIP #6: If you eat nonorganic meat, remove the skin and fat first
Dioxins are found most heavily concentrated in the fatty tissues of animals, so removing the skin and fat of nonorganic meat will cut your exposure to the carcinogens.
TIP #7: Eat more vegetarian meals
Reducing your meat intake can simultaneously reduce your environmental footprint and your risk of heart disease and diabetes. For inexpensive organic vegetarian meals, choose beans such as lentils and chickpeas. To reduce gas associated with eating beans, Watson suggests adding a strip of the sea vegetable kombu or a bay leaf while cooking, and rinsing the beans well after they’re cooked.
Cut your chemical load, clean the environment
Organic farming practices benefit the environment by conserving water, building soil fertility, and reducing environmental toxins, including carcinogens.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) recommends a total ban on synthetic pesticides in Canada. “We’re especially concerned about the link between pesticides [used for lawn, garden, and agriculture] and blood cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, birth defects, and Parkinson’s disease,” says Gideon Forman, executive director of CAPE.
“I eat organic,” Forman says. “Not 100 percent, but close. It tastes better. And I feel it’s safer for my kids and for the workers picking the produce.”
TIP #8: Don’t assume you’re being protected
Health Canada declared finding zero pesticide residues in 90 percent of produce grown in Canada and in 89 percent of imported products for the year 2006/2007. How is this possible?
“Health Canada uses weaker forms of testing than in the UK or even the US,” explains David Boyd, an adjunct professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University. He adds, “Over 1,000 more pesticides are allowed on your food in Canada than in Europe.”
When asked about these banned pesticides, Health Canada spokesperson Olivia Caron responded by email, stating, “Prohibition of a pesticide in a foreign country does not necessarily equate to unacceptable risk in Canada.” She added that Health Canada re-evaluates registered pesticides every 15 years.
“That’s not acceptable; that’s not protecting the health of Canadians,” Boyd says.
TIP #9: Reduce your pesticide load with the EWG’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen
Recognizing that the benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure and that organics are not available to all people, the EWG created a Clean 15 list of the produce least contaminated by pesticide residues and a Dirty Dozen list of the most contaminated. (See sidebar on pages 80-81 for details.)
The EWG says that if you choose five servings of fruits and vegetables a day from the Clean 15 list rather than the Dirty Dozen, you and your family could lower your daily pesticide intake by 92 percent.
TIP #10: Always peel nonorganic fruit and vegetables to reduce pesticide exposure
Although peeling vegetables will not reduce the concentration of absorbed pesticides, it will remove any surface residues that are present. Alternatively, wash produce with a mixture of warm water, salt, and either vinegar or lemon juice.
The gap between what we say and what we do
In a global online survey by Nielsen in 2011, 73 percent of respondents were either “very concerned” or “quite concerned” with the use of pesticides. Yet only 18 percent of Canadians regularly buy organic food.
Professor Karen Hamilton, an expert on the psychology of consumer behaviour at George Brown College in Toronto, points to greenwashing to explain why some consumers may be discouraged from buying pesticide-free organic foods.
Greenwashing is a practice employed by marketers of claiming that a product is good for the environment when it is not. “This has led to so much confusion about the terminology related to ‘healthy’ foods, such as ‘natural’ or ‘made with organic ingredients,’” says Hamilton. “Is it any wonder even the informed consumer may be confused?”
TIP #11: Look for the Biologique Canada Organic logo and the USDA Organic seal
Products featuring these logos are required to have 95 percent organic content and be grown without synthetic pesticides, dyes, genetically modified seeds, or irradiation. For animals raised for meat or eggs, no hormones, antibiotics or factory farming methods are permitted.
More money-saving tips
TIP #12: Ask your health food store about customer loyalty programs|
Also, keep an eye out for weekly and monthly flyer specials and for customer appreciation or seniors’ discount days.
TIP # 13: Check organic store brands for lower-priced packaged food
Most supermarkets and large-scale health food stores carry their own brand of organic products such as pasta, pasta sauce, frozen fruit and vegetables, and a variety of other items—often at a more affordable price.
TIP #14: Buy in bulk
Purchasing cases of items such as organic, BPA-free canned tomatoes and frequenting the bulk aisle for staples such as rice and beans will save you money in the long run.
TIP #16: Freeze fruits and vegetables when they’re in season
To control enzyme activity and prevent spoilage in vegetables, blanch, drain water, and freeze immediately.
TIP #17: Use an organics delivery service and save time and money on gas
Some services offer savings on bulk orders, monthly specials, and convenient shopping through a website.
TIP #18: Join an online organic food-buying club, or start your own
Buying clubs are groups of individuals who get together to buy directly from a food wholesaler or distributor. As an example see nowbc.ca.
TIP #19: Grow your own herbs and veggies
Use your balcony, deck, backyard, or a community garden. For pesticide-free gardening tips, check out
TIP #20: Share the bounty
After we’ve done everything we reasonably can to ensure our food is healthy and within our budget, share it with family and friends. As the Irish proverb goes, “Laughter is brightest where food is best.”
Clean 15: lowest in pesticides
- sweet corn*
- sweet peas
- sweet potato
*Avoid GMO sweet corn by purchasing organic.
Download the EWG Shopper’s Guide as a PDF or an app for your smartphone at ewg.org/foodnews.
EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce
Dirty Dozen: highest in pesticides
- bell peppers
- kale and collard greens
- imported grapes