A hot topic around the Barn is about the difference between organic, conventional, and local produce.  Parents see all kinds of labeling at the supermarket, but what does it really mean, and what should you buy?

This type of labeling (organic vs. conventional vs. local) is one of the most confusing things for conscientious food shoppers.  Each description sounds like a good thing in its own right, but how do you know which to choose?  Let’s start by explaining what each term actually means.

100% Organic:  Can only contain organic ingredients, meaning no antibiotics, hormones, radiation, or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers can be used. And, the USDA organic logo can be displayed on packaging.  This can be an expensive proposition for small farms that may actually grow organic produce, but are not large enough to pay for the certification process.  (It can be tricky to know for sure, unless you can talk to the farmer directly.)

Conventional: Conventional produce is grown with chemical pesticides and/or fertilizers.

Local: In 2008 Congress defined local food as a product being transported “less than 400 miles from the origin of the product” or coming from “the State in which the product is produced.” 

To set the record straight, organic food has not been shown to be more nutritious than non-organic food.  For example, an organic and a conventional strawberry have the same amount of vitamin C.  Where they differ is in the amount of pesticide residue found on the conventional and not on the organic strawberry.  Organic farming is also less damaging to the earth.  Ultimately, it’s more about personal and global health than nutritional value.

Organic produce and meats can be hard to find and are more expensive than conventional.  Certain fruits and veggies are grown with fewer pesticides than others, and are therefore a better place to save money and go conventional.  Check out which produce is best to buy organic, and which can be more safely bought conventional on the Environmental Working Group’s website.

The significance of local food is that by traveling a shorter distance, it has less of an environmental impact than food shipped in from far away.  There is less fuel required to get the food from point A to point B, and this is better for the environment.  There are both local conventional produce and local organic produce.  Local foods tend to be fresher because they can be picked and sold within the same day, and eating locally helps people take advantage of what’s naturally in season where they live and support their local economies.  A tomato in December from Mexico doesn’t hold a candle to a freshly grown Jersey tomato in August!  Plus, if you frequent local farmer’s markets (or grow your own produce in a garden!), you may actually get to meet the people who grew your food.  That kind of transparency is invaluable.

Now that you are aware of the differences between the three choices, it’s your decision to buy what makes sense for your budget, health and taste buds!

What puzzles you about keeping your family healthy?  Tell us what’s on your mind by emailing [email protected].  We’ll answer those questions here weekly.

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