Providing Safe, Nutritious Food

Three “Normal” Perspectives on Shopping Organic

by Mary Gaulke
What does it mean to shop organic or conventional? The official definition of “organic” is easy to find — here’s the USDA’s rundown — but what does it mean to typical shoppers? To find out, I talked to some of the least typical people I know: my family. I wanted to know what the they think about GMOs, organic food, and conventionally grown food; how they make decisions at the grocery store; and how they think those decisions affect the ones they’re feeding. Below are lightly edited transcripts of our conversations.

My Mom, Ellen, Has a Secret Taxonomy of Grocery Shoppers

Me: Hi Mom! Are you ready to dazzle the public?

Ellen: Is the world ready for us?

My mother’s homemade plum kuchen.

Me: Question one: Tell me about your grocery shopping habits. More broadly speaking than your penchant for buying fruit-flavored ice cream that you then do not eat.

Ellen: I like to believe I go once a week and once a week only. But if I have a hankering to make a plum kuchen and need brown sugar, I will shop again. I routinely shop Sundays. That is the day the serious shoppers shop. Tuesdays are for recreational shoppers. The ones who study cans of green beans like they are a museum piece.

Me: I did not know this taxonomy. I guess that makes me a clueless Tuesday shopper.

Ellen: I do also hit the big box store. But not regularly.

Me: Thesis: Big box stores are the domain of dads.

Ellen: They’re there for the free samples and beer selection.

Me: How do you decide when and when not to buy organic?

Ellen: I primarily buy organic produce on the “dirty dozen” list, but if something is at the farmers’ market that looks luscious I will buy it anyway. And I sometimes find that produce is not produced to withstand travel. Peaches are not rock hard (think of your sister Rachel and I sticking our noses into a brown bag of fresh peaches).

What are the “Dirty Dozen”?
Every year, a nonprofit organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of the twelve fruits and vegetables that show the highest levels of pesticide residue. The EWG advises consumers to buy only organic options for those fruits and vegetables. However, scientists have noted that the risks from these residues are minimal and far outweighed by the benefits of eating fresh produce, as reported in publications like Huffington Post, the Washington Post, NBC News, AgDaily, and Newsweek. In fact, SafeFruitsandVeggies.com offers a pesticide residue calculator that shows the massive amounts of fresh produce you can eat in a single day without exceeding the safe “no effect level” set by government regulators. One less thing for my mom to worry about!

Me: When do you not go for organic?

Ellen: Not bananas or avocados or mangoes. Not onions. I used to always get organic greens for salad, but it’s only Dad who eats those, and he doesn’t care.

Me: So, what do you think about GMOs? Do you try to avoid them?

Ellen: Quite honestly, I don’t know a great deal about them. My initial impulse is to avoid them. I am scared about what I don’t know.

Me: Do you notice when stuff is labeled non-GMO, and does that affect your decisions at all?

Ellen: I am aware of it I think with milk. I suppose I would prefer non-GMO milk.

Me: Good news — there's no such thing as GMO milk! Just some brands put a non-GMO label on and some don't.

Ellen: Thank heavens I can sleep tonight without worrying about GMO floating around in my coffee.

Me: I mean, if you're drinking coffee before bed, maybe not so much on the sleep.

Ben and Michelle made these lamb samsas with bok choi from a Central Asian cookbook.

My Brother and Sister-in-Law, Ben and Michelle, Go to Too Many Grocery Stores

Me: I’ll ask you what I asked Mom: Are you ready to dazzle the public?

Ben: Always.

Me: Tell me about your grocery shopping habits. How often do you go, and where do you go?

Michelle: Hoo boy. Our habits can get kind of elaborate. We typically menu plan once a week, on Saturday evening. Then we do our big shopping run at our neighborhood grocery store on Sunday afternoon. But we might stop at two or three other places along the way, depending on what we need. Then throughout the week we'll supplement by shopping at other places. We do all this on foot, so there's a limit to how much we can get in one run.

Me: How do you decide what to get where?

Ben: We get staples at the grocery store because that's cheapest. We get most of our produce at our local co-op, because it's closer and the higher cost is worth it for the higher quality. We also get produce from a farmers’ market in our local park and from Reading Terminal Market, which is a really amazing food emporium (for lack of a better word) near where I work in Center City, Philadelphia. We cook a lot of Asian food, so we'll get specialized ingredients at different places. There's a South Asian food market and an Arab food store where we live in West Philly and I'll get stuff in Chinatown, too. I can honestly say that in an average month, we'll end up shopping at 7 or 8 different places for food. We realize that's pretty unusual, but we like getting the best stuff at the best prices, and we do a lot of specialty cooking, so that results in jumping around a lot. It's not something we usually mind. It can be fun.

Me: How do you decide when and when not to buy organic?

Michelle: We actually don't really care much about whether our food is organic (they're going to kick us out of West Philly when they read this). We do care most about the quality and flavor and freshness of our food, and I really like to eat as much local, seasonal fruit as possible. At the places we shop, those qualities often correlate with organic, so I'd say we do end up buying a fair amount of organic produce, just because.

Ben: We don't buy free-range poultry or grass-fed beef. It's just way too expensive and we don't find the difference in taste dramatic enough.

A blood orange tart made by Ben and Michelle.

Me: So, what do you think about GMOs? Do you try to avoid them?

Ben: I trust scientists: I don't see any reason to doubt the safety of GMOs. I'll buy food labeled as not having GMOs if it happens to be something I want to eat, but, honestly, I'm actually less happy to buy something when it advertises that it's non-GMO. I feel like those labels are playing into a baseless fear.

Michelle: I haven't read any compelling scientific evidence that's convinced me I need to be afraid of GMOs for the sake of my health, but I have read that opting for non-GMO ingredients drives up food prices. It troubles me that basics would become more difficult for some people to buy for the sake of the GMO-free labels when they don't actually translate to healthier food.

Me: Any parting thoughts?

Ben: Were we witty enough?

Data Breakdown: What do Grocery Shoppers Look For?

In a 2017 survey of U.S. adults, we found these are the main factors shoppers consider at the grocery store (Source: PN Styles 2017):
Price:
68%
Taste:
65%
Nutritional content:
34%
Brand:
27%
All natural:
15%
Locally grown:
16%
Non-GMO:
14%

So, What Did We Learn?

Well, first we learned my family is pretty unusual — but isn’t every family? More broadly, what I realized is that even within my family, there are lots of different grocery shopping habits and lots of reasons why we buy the food we do. Everyone makes food choices for all sorts of reasons, and it’s awesome that we have so many choices. We should value and protect that, and consumers having choices starts with farmers having choices in what food they grow and how the grow it. That’s how we keep the choices coming … even if not all of us want seven stores’ worth of options.