According to last year’s “What’s Trending in Nutrition” survey conducted by Today’s Dietitians and Pollack Communications, clean eating has become the number one diet trend. But what exactly is “clean eating”? For some, it might mean cutting out processed foods, while others may choose to cut out specific ingredients or food groups like dairy or soy. Still others may trend toward a plant-based diet or avoid GMOs. Here at the Co-op, we try to provide information about a variety of different kinds of foods to help shoppers make informed decisions that work best for their budgets and values. Check out these brochures on our website for more information.
When I began my work with the Co-op, it was as a buyer for the Downtown store’s produce department. I can certainly attest, one place where the “clean eating” conversation often arises for individuals is in the Produce department. For example, the choice between organic and conventional seems to happen most often in fresh produce purchases, as data from the Economic Review Service and the USDA indicates growth in organic produce purchases is out-pacing growth in other categories such as meats and cheeses, snacks, and beverages. Here at City Market, we feel as though our local options provide yet another important option for supporting a clean-eating lifestyle. Our Key to Signs is one way we try to provide clarity around some of these attributes in the store.
When choosing which produce items to purchase with the organic label, another great resource is the Environmental Working Group’s list of Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. These lists are updated annually and measure the pesticide residue found on specific produce items, labeling them part of the “dirty dozen” if the residues are higher than average and “clean 15” if they are lower. For price conscious shoppers, the clean 15 can provide a good roadmap for produce items that may be purchased conventionally with a low risk of pesticide exposure.
While it is certainly a reality that organic certified products often come with a higher price tag, the organic movement is far from its fringe roots as more and more shoppers are spending their food dollars on organic products. Since 1990, this industry has grown from $1 billion to $43 billion, demonstrating an increased interest in organic production. According to the Economic Review Service and the USDA, the food industry is seeing consumers choosing organic “because of their concerns regarding health, the environment, and animal welfare.” As mentioned above, shopping patterns seem to indicate that organic produce is particularly important, having taken the largest chunk of market share away from conventionally produced choices compared to other categories.
Organic farming emphasizes soil regeneration, crop rotation, and the elimination of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. But beyond that, what does organic really mean? Despite my experience in the produce world, I’ll be the first to admit that the USDA organic definition can feel simultaneously weighty and indigestible. For instance, at the 2018 NOFA-VT Winter Conference, I was able to participate in a particularly heated roundtable where growers and retailers discussed a shared confusion over the definition. At the end of it all, I was left feeling as though the one and only way to know for certain that the food we eat is clean, is to get to know our local farmers and enjoy their hard work with curiosity and respect.
Participating in this discussion was an illuminating experience and a testament to the importance of the work that NOFA is doing in Vermont. While simultaneously educating growers and consumers, NOFA-VT also supports Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), our states organic agriculture certifying body. VOF “believes that organic production enhances soil, plant, animal, and human health to protect the environment for current and future generations.” As an eater and a shopper, I like to think I share that belief too.
A Bit of Advice
If you are like me and think about eating clean as a daily lifestyle choice, the advice I am about to give for navigating the produce department might not seem too groundbreaking. However, these types of discussions are not going to end any time soon, so I want to sign off with my approach to balancing my health concerns, ethical concerns, and checkbook.
- Pay attention to pricing—this goes without saying. Specifically, I mean to pay attention to pricing not just as you place the item in your basket, but over time as well. Produce markets fluctuate weekly, sometimes daily, and you will quickly learn to spot good deals.
- Look for what’s in season—this is often the best way to find the best flavor, and seasonality goes hand in hand with good pricing! Now that summer is upon us, take advantage of the amazing local produce available at the Co-op or your local farmer’s market and farm stand. In my opinion, this is the easiest way to make clean eating interesting and fun.
- Memorize the Clean 15—this list gets updated yearly, but pretty much stays the same. It is a list of conventional produce that is less likely to have pesticide residues. Staples like broccoli, onions, and avocados make the list alongside treats like melons and asparagus. Knowing this list has helped me save money on certain items that I can carry over into my pricier local organic options.
- Not to sound like a broken record, but… get to know your local farmers! Not only is local produce fresher and tastier, but you can know for certain that your money is staying in your community and multiplying—another important consideration when weighing all the options. By talking to farmers and showing a little curiosity, you an even get to know their growing practices to make sure that your produce has that extra organic nutritional value! As I mentioned before, this is always going to be the best way to guarantee your produce is ‘clean.’ You might even be surprised to learn that many conventional local growers use similar practices to their organic neighbors, such as integrative pest management, even though their labels don’t show an organic seal.
Looking for an opportunity to meet your farmers? Join us for our next Farm Tour on June 8th where we’ll visit Butterworks Farm, a certified organic operation specializing in grass-fed dairy.
Helpful links & Resources
- Click here to see the ERS and USDA overview of the organic market
- Get introduced to some helpful information about clean eating
- Learn more about future nutritrion trends
- Find a helpful Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System
- See this year's Clean 15
- Get to know our local partners at NOFA-VT and VOF