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Health / Safety

Farmers' market options -- what you really get

May 17, 2010

Living green is front and center in our life today, from driving a fuel-efficient car to recycling more at home. Buying food at farmers' markets is a green option that is more popular than ever. Before you pick up a basket to head out to shop, get familiar with the options at farmers' markets.

Editor note: The following column was written by Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D., a registered dietician and Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of Applied Human Sciences.

Most organic foods cost more

Organic farmers focus their efforts on renewable resources and the conservation of water and soil. Most organic foods cost 10 to 40 percent more than conventionally grown food.

Some reasons people may feel better about paying the higher cost are thinking the organic options taste better, may be more nutritious, have lower levels of pesticides and herbicides and a desire to help the environment. On the other hand, some choose not to purchase organic food because it has a higher cost, fewer choices, a blemished appearance and uncertainty if the product is truly organic.

Organic vs. non-organic food

Here are the facts about organic vs. non-organic food.

  • Organic is not more nutritious when compared with conventional choices according to research studies. The nutrients in food can vary depending on soil and climate conditions when it was grown and how it was handled and shipped.
  • Organic produce is not necessarily free of pesticides and herbicides, but it likely has lower concentrations. Eating organic also does not mean the chemical levels in conventional produce are cause for concern for health. Because there have not been any long term studies, it’s unknown if long term negative effects exist from specific levels of chemicals.
  • Organic food is not necessarily “cleaner.” Due to the possibility of residual chemicals on both conventional and organic produce from herbicides and pesticides, I recommend that you wash fresh produce well with cold, running water. Organic and non-organic food may also be contaminated with food-borne pathogens during handling and shipping.
  • Dairy, meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, fruits and vegetables may be either conventional or organic. Processed organic foods, seen more often in grocery stores than farmers’ markets, have a more complex U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling system to qualify to be sold as organic. Meat, for example, that is sold as organic must come from animals that are given organic feed and no antibiotics or growth hormones and have access to the outside. Some small farmers cannot pay for USDA organic certification but may follow organic principles.
  •  An advantage of shopping locally at a farmers’ market: you can get questions about how the food you’re buying was grown, handled and processed answered directly from the vendor.

Check vendor policies

Not all food at farmers’ markets is guaranteed to be locally grown or organic. Some markets permit sellers who have purchased overstocked produce “second-hand” from supermarkets or fruit and vegetable stands. Though you may be attracted by lower prices, a vendor may not be offering local produce if that’s what you want. Check vendor policies with the market manager.

In addition to shopping for local or organic produce, look for heirloom produce. Heirloom seeds are passed down through generations. Heirlooms may be considerably different in appearance and flavor from conventionally grown produce. Heirloom tomatoes are becoming more available and appreciated for their unusual colors and delicious flavor. Likewise, these limited varieties may come at a higher price.

No criteria for "natural" label

Some products are marketed as natural. On meat or poultry does “natural” or “naturally raised” mean animals are fed in a pasture rather than a feed lot? Unlike the strictly defined standards for a food to be labeled organic, there are no such criteria to use the term natural on the label of most foods.

USDA defines natural as meat or poultry that was minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients. For other foods there is no official definition and the USDA relies on producers to use the term responsibly intending to mean their product doesn’t contain anything synthetic or artificial.

Ask questions, understand labels

Shopping at the farmers’ market is more than donning a hat and strolling through the aisles to pick up a sampling of the season’s produce. Know if what you are putting in that basket is what you think you are getting. Understand what labels mean and get information from the vendors, but don’t forget to enjoy the experience!

Contact: Shirley Perryman
Phone: (970) 491-2404