Food & Drink Navigating the aisles

Buying Organic, a guide to shopping organic and the best of conventional foods

A Field Guide to Buying Organic, by Luddene Perry and Dan Schultz, is a ponderous resource. On the one hand, it provides a practical guide to navigating the grocery-store aisles, on the other it re-examines the philosophical arguments for organic food production, debunking a few myths contrary to popular belief, many organic farms do use pesticides at the same time that it answers the question “why organic?”

Perry teaches horticultural food production and garden and landscape design and is a member of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association. Schultz is a freelance writer who once worked as a pest-control operator fumigating grain silos. The latter provides a foil for the former, resulting in a relatively unbiased look at the evolution of organic food production and the questions consumers face as organics become more ubiquitous, among them: Is it more important to buy food produced locally or organically? Is it better to buy organic food from a co-op or commercial supermarket? If you’re strapped for cash, which organic vegetables and fruits are worth the cost?

The answers, Buying Organic explains, are more complex than the set of production rules that defines the USDA organic seal. In the first third of the book, the authors look at each of the oft-published top 10 reasons to buy organic from protecting ourselves from pesticides to preventing the erosion of water quality, biodiversity, and topsoil to preserving small family-owned farms and farm workers to promoting a “true economy,” in which we pay for food, not the effects of environmental damage and explore whether organic really does a better job than conventional, and which of the threats are real and which are hype.

A Field Guide to Buying Organic

By Luddene Perry and Dan Schultz
Bantam Dell
$14, 342 pages
ISBN: 0553382934

This approach allows readers to decide for themselves, though not without some small amount of moralizing, not only the value of organic food production, but also how issues of health, environment, and economy will inform their grocery shopping. A Cosmo-style quiz my biggest food-related health fear is hormone disruption, cancer, antibiotic resistance, food poisoning, none of the above plugs readers into buyer profiles. In the aisle sections of the book, these profiles help readers determine how they should approach each department of the grocery store. For example, an environmentally concerned “Green Shopper” may want to buy milk produced at local small-herd dairies and sold in returnable glass bottles, while a “Healthy Shopper” may be content buying milk from grass-fed, pastured cows. Similarly, “Best bet” charts, based on Federal Department of Agriculture studies, list the lesser of conventional-food evils in each department. For example, conventional bananas, with the residue of only five pesticides, may be a better choice than apples at 34.

Each chapter also includes useful tips (how to store grains to avoid hatching weevils), crop profiles, brand guides, and taste tests. The taste tests are not as edifying as they might be, particularly in the case of packaged foods, because they don’t include brand names, which leaves the reader only with the vague conclusion that sometimes organic products taste different or better than their conventional counterparts and sometimes they don’t.

Overall, the authors of Buying Organic have created a book that, in its effort to be balanced and thorough, is too dense to be considered a pocket reference. Yet, readers will find it well organized and accessible, a useful tool for honing one’s personal philosophy towards organic food production and making informed decisions at the grocery store.

By Susan Pagani

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