Here, Linda Watson, author of Wildy Affordable Organic, helps demystify product labels and offers tips on how to incorporate more organic into your life while staying within your budget.
Q: There are lots of different labels on the market these days, including organic, local, and natural. What are the key differences between these terms?
A: Organic started out to include all of these concepts and now has a legal definition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that organic agriculture promotes biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil health to "restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony." Certified organic food is grown using materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. It's good for you as well as the farm and the farm workers, since it prohibits the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, and GMOs. The USDA has four levels of certified organic food: 100% organic, organic (95% or more organic ingredients), made with organic ingredients (at least 70% organic), and less than 70% organic ingredients.
Local and natural have far more fuzzy definitions that vary based on who is using them. Local should mean that the food was grown near you, but that might mean within walking distance or three states away. Natural also might mean grown and prepared with only naturally occurring ingredients. But humans are natural, so some rascals might say anything a human makes is natural too.
Q: What organic ingredients do you always have on hand to keep costs down?
A: I love rugged vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and onions. They travel well and last a long time, so they cost much less than prima-donna veggies like asparagus. I always have a big variety of dried beans on hand, including lentils and split peas for when I'm in a rush. I buy cases of canned organic tomatoes when they are on sale to get a bulk discount. Organic popcorn, nuts, and raisins satisfy any urge to buy expensive and unhealthy snacks.
Q: What advice do you have for people who are considering going organic, but don’t feel they can commit to making all organic purchases?
A: Don't worry! Go as organic as your budget and local markets allow, but do take the steps you can. Choosing organic means healthier food for your family, healthier farms for farmers and farm animals, and less poison in the environment. They may not thank you directly, but your kids, farm workers, butterflies, and polar bears are among those who will benefit from your actions.
For the best health advantage:
• Start with organic meat, dairy, and eggs. Eat less but eat better.
• Next pick organic oils. Store-brand organic olive oil is a great choice.
• Then focus on fruits and vegetables you can't peel, such as strawberries, bell peppers, and celery.
The more you cook, the easier it is to go organic. An all-organic bakery cake may be expensive or hard to find, but you can whip up a cake in minutes using a mix, organic eggs, and organic oil. It doesn’t take much longer to make a cake from scratch using organic eggs, milk, oil or butter, flour, flavorings, and even sugar. Making a difference can be delicious.
Q: You encourage cooking from scratch to keep your budget in check, but doing so takes time. What can people who are tight on time do to take advantage of this money-saving strategy?
A: Start with a pot of beans! In just ten minutes of active time, you can make two pounds of beans. That's twenty servings. In a few more minutes, you can turn those beans into two or three different recipes. Eat some over the next four days and freeze the rest. Let beans be your own homemade fast food.
Q: What are your top 5 tips for buying organic on a budget?
- Buy in season. Eat more eggs in the spring and more potatoes in the fall.
- Don't pay to ship water. Add your local water to dried beans, rice, and tea.
- Feed your freezer. Freeze blueberries and bell-pepper strips in season instead of paying two or three times as much for them in the cold months.
- If you bought it, cook it! Use the stems of greens and asparagus, broth from boiling noodles or vegetables, and even carrot peels to make delicious, healthy food.
- Visit your farmers' market and in your grocery store, too. If you don't see what you want, ask! Stores want to carry what you will buy. Let them know you want organic.
About Linda Watson
Linda Watson is the cook and researcher who started Cook for Good in the summer of 2007. She is a home cook with a well-developed sense of curiosity, but she is not a nutritionist or chef. She may be the only person in the world who is a member of both the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the Project Management Institute. Her background in project management and procedures writing helps her write and test recipes and optimize the shopping lists and cooking plans. Her book, Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet—all on $5 a Day or Less, was published by Da Capo Press in June 2011. Her weekly column, Veg o' the Week, runs on WhyVeg.
Watson teaches classes at a wide range of venues, from the Share Our Strength's national Conference of Leaders to private salons, from Whole Foods to food banks, from Slow Food groups and co-ops to colleges, clinics, and businesses. She gives cooking demonstrations at farmers' markets and speaks to groups who are interested in cooking great food, controlling expenses, losing weight, raising healthy children, fighting hunger, or reducing their impact on the planet. The exciting part about the Cook for Good lifestyle is that you can focus on one of those goals and create lots of other goodness as side effects.
Watson lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband Bruce. She has had an odd but thrilling career so far, including developing a top-secret expert system for the Institute for Defense Analyses, working with Tom Clancy and Douglas Adams on computer games, riding the dot-com wave with Egarden.com, and being the director of my county political party and the Raleigh Independent Business Alliance. As Garrison Keillor says, you can do anything with an English degree!