Ask Casual Kitchen: Going Organic and Bagging Your Groceries

Readers! As Casual Kitchen's readership continues to grow, I've been receiving more and more great questions via email, comments and Twitter. Some of these I'll turn into full posts, but from time to time (uh, like today) I'll run an "Ask Casual Kitchen" column to tackle a few questions at once.

As always, I welcome your feedback, so please
let me know what you think!
Q: Which food/categories are worth 'paying up' for organic? And why?

A: I wrote a post on balancing the cost and value of organic foods several weeks ago, and it drew quite a bit of controversy--mainly because there are many people out there who won't (or can't) accept any middle ground in this debate.

But from a purely cost/value perspective, you'll probably get the best value out of your organic dollar by focusing your spending on foods which are normally grown using pesticides, are difficult to wash thoroughly and which are typically eaten whole (think fruits like strawberries, raspberries and peaches). You'll get the least value with fruits or veggies that have thick rinds and thus can be eaten safely no matter how much pesticide use is involved in their production (think melons, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes or bananas).

Keep in mind that there's a philosophical (sometimes I want to say a religious) aspect to this subject that skews peoples' views. If you rigidly object to any use of pesticides or chemicals at all, no matter what the reason, then you'll have to stake out different ground on this debate. However, if you are conversant with the small but growing body of scientific studies that argues that there is little to no incremental health benefits in organic foods at all, then you may not find any value whatsoever in going organic. Read up on the issues, decide where you stand, and then buy accordingly.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with the baggers at my grocery store who repeatedly put raw chicken in grocery bags with other foods? These kids have no idea about the risks of raw chicken.

A: You shouldn't have to explain the concept of not wanting chicken goo smeared all over your food. But in my experience, most grocery baggers tend to be young kids who don't do their own food shopping, and thus are often oblivious to how to pack groceries appropriately.

One easy solution is to grab one of those clear plastic bags from the produce section and put your chicken package in there. The register/scanner will still be able to read the label, yet the extra bag will protect your other food. Barring that, you can also look for a grocery store in your area offering a "bag your own" checkout aisle.

Readers, what thoughts would you add?

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Unknown said...

Re: bagging your chicken:

In the last year, I read an interview with someone who was writing about the contaminated meat problems we've been having.
It's killing me, but I can't remember who it was.

But...they had a suggestion that they picked up from people who worked in the meat department of their local grocery store. All meat may be contaminated, so to be safe, they grab one of those plastic bags before they touch any of the meat, turn it inside out, and use it as a glove to pick up the meat from the meat case. Then they pull it over the package they just picked up. That way, their hands are protected, and they never have to worry about causing their own cross-contamination.

This trick means I'm not constantly asking my wife if she's got hand gel in her purse when I've picked up a leaky package of chicken from the case.

chacha1 said...

Great tip from MikeV. That is kind of the reverse method of taking off used exam gloves (for CPR, first responders, etc).

Re: organic. I don't argue with the new studies showing little to no incremental health benefit from organics. However, I also don't argue with new studies showing serious long-term population effects from the ingestion of pesticides. So given the choice of organic or not, I pretty much always go organic.

It's just not that much more expensive in my area. There are other ways to save money.

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

I always just tell the checker to put the meat in its own bag.

We go organic for the "dirty dozen" but I don't worry about it for fruit I'm going to peel (bananas, citrus) and foods that aren't on the list (tomatoes). I only buy organic berries, potatoes, carrots, peaches, and lettuce/greens. If organics aren't available, I go without rather than buying conventional for those items.

I almost never buy organic cauliflower, broccoli, corn (I usually buy them frozen, too.)

That's the balance that seems right for us right now.

Lo said...

Regarding purchasing organic products -- my advice would be to consult the Environmental Working Groups lists of the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean Fifteen" -- lists of the most/least contaminated fruits and vegetables. These lists are updated each year and are based on comprehensive testing of traditionally grown fruits & vegetables.

Even if you're of the mind that organic food have little/no additional nutritional benefit, it's worth noting that any added chemicals can be harmful to your health -- and particularly to your children's health.

And really, why take chances, especially as organic produce (particularly of the locally procured variety) is growing to be very competitively priced.

Daniel said...

Good insights so far.

I think I'll run another post in the next couple of days on the pesticides/organics debate. There's an aspect of this conversation that makes me wonder if we're worrying about the wrong things.

And Mike, great suggestion on handling meat. Thanks for sharing.


Julia said...

You overlook one very important factor in the economics of organics... The cost to our environment. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are taking a toll on our environment as well... all the pesticides run off into our waterways. Think of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (which we've forgotten about since the BP fiasco). And the fertilizers are degrading the amount of top soil we have - thus requiring more and more fertilizer.

Also, the cost of conventionally grown vegetables are kept artificially cheap through the farm bill and other subsidies. So we don't pay for the full cost at the grocery store, we pay for them in our taxes as well.

In terms of the health factors of organics vs. conventional... the scientific community is still debating -- with synthetic fertilizers, the soil doesn't have the same micro-nutrients as organic soil. It's similar to breast milk vs. formula, or food vs. multi-vitamins. Our bodies absorb nutrients better in their natural state than in their laboratory-produced form.

That being said, for as long as organic costs more at the cash register, people will decide with their wallets as much as anything else.

Okay, thank you. I will step off my soap box now.

Daniel said...

These are totally fair points Julia, thank you for sharing. Stay tuned for a follow up post on yet another aspect of organics--I'd be interested in your thoughts there as well.

And PS: Don't worry about stepping on or off any soapboxes. I welcome and encourage all opinions here, especially when they are as clearly and constructively articulated as yours!


KM said...

"You shouldn't have to explain the concept of not wanting chicken goo smeared all over your food. But in my experience, most grocery baggers tend to be young kids who don't do their own food shopping, and thus are often oblivious to how to pack groceries appropriately."

If they are young kids who don't know why you don't want chicken juice over everything, why not just explain it to them? If they don't know they're doing something wrong, how can they fix it? I'm sure most would amend what they're doing and it will save you and other shoppers the hassle in the future.

Daniel said...

KM, that's an excellent and irrefutable point. I'm going to do just that the next time this happens to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!