Grocery Shopping Tips for Sustainable Eating

Take a virtual stroll through the grocery store with us to discover the best foods money can buy.

| July/August 2012

The Grocery Buyer's Guide to Sustainable Eating

For healthier food, shop the perimeter aisles at the grocery store.

Photo By Veer

We all want clean, healthy food that tastes good, gives us energy and enhances our health. Yet we have all heard about the variety of issues surrounding our foods—from pesticides and artificial ingredients to excess fat and sugar. To make matters more complicated, most of us are on a budget and can’t afford to buy all of our groceries at specialty natural foods stores. The good news is that it’s still possible to use shopping smarts to eat better, even on a budget. Let’s take a virtual trip through the supermarket together to find out how to do it.

Although it can be easy to miss, most grocery stores are actually laid out in a very similar pattern: Whole foods such as produce, meat, bread, dairy and grains lie around the store’s perimeter, while the interior aisles include processed foods, canned foods, sauces, cereals, drinks and snack foods. Keep that in mind as you visit your local store. In general, it’s better to fill our carts from the perimeter aisles rather than the center areas. And as you make the rounds to the other sections, use the advice on the following pages to make smart, savvy decisions that will put better foods in your fridge and pantry.


The Bad News: Organic produce often costs more than conventional. But there is good reason for this price discrepancy, and this is truly a case of getting what you pay for. To that point, let’s consider how non-organic food is grown: A farmer selects a variety of fruit or vegetable with traits for mass production such as high yield, durability and shelf life—that peach or potato will need to be able to survive a long journey, first to a centralized distribution system and on to grocery stores all over the country. The farmer plants giant swaths of land in that one variety to make easy work of planting and harvesting. Because so much of one variety is growing together, its insect pests can find it easily and would be able to overtake it if it weren’t for the chemicals called in to kill them. Without the biodiversity that otherwise fends them off, weeds might thrive, as well, unless they’re also sprayed with chemicals. Those chemicals don’t just affect weeds and pests. They linger on foods and contribute to a host of maladies, from skin and respiratory infections to cancer and reproductive damage as they make their way down into the soil, into our water supplies and all the way out to our oceans. They also affect the health of the workers who apply them, the organisms in the soil that could otherwise promote the development of healthy plants for many generations to come, and ultimately the fish swimming many miles from the farm.

Eventually it’s time for harvest, which means the farm’s workers—who may or may not be legal citizens paid a fair wage—pick the produce before it’s fully developed nutritionally, so that it will be “ripe” by the time it hits store shelves many days or even weeks later. This definition of ripe concerns the point-of-purchase texture or color, but not necessarily flavor or nutritional quality.

The Good News: Organically grown produce is on the rise. In organic fruit and vegetable production, crops are interplanted or moved around from year to year, giving pest insects less of a chance to take over and reinvigorating the nutrients in the soil. When non-chemical means of pest and weed control are employed, life in soils and waterways is left unharmed. When varieties are allowed to ripen until they are at their peak of nutrition and flavor, they can’t be shipped as far away because they’ll spoil before they hit store shelves. But they taste much better and contain more nutrients. For example, the vitamin C content of peppers and tomatoes increases when they ripen fully on the vine.

Although organic farming is on the rise, less than 1 percent of U.S. food is grown that way. That means most of the fruits and vegetables you see in the grocery store are not organically grown. However, more and more grocery stores have an organic section, some of which also feature foods grown locally or at least domestically. Whether or not your grocery store stocks organic produce, you have other options: Grow your own, shop at farmer’s markets or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription program, all of which can often be ways to obtain organic produce for less. Be aware that many farmers sell organically grown produce that is not certified by the USDA—obtaining organic certification can be expensive for small farms, even if they’re following all the rules—so ask your farmer about her growing practices. If you are prioritizing which items to buy organically, consult the Environmental Working Group's “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists or via the “Dirty Dozen” smart phone app, which tells you which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide residue, and which are safer to eat. For more help understanding organic labels and standards, visit "Understanding Food Labels."  

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