Best Shopping Practices

In This Chapter

  • From the farm to the marketplace
  • Defining organic foods and products
  • Examining the role of additives in food
  • Unraveling genetically modified organisms
  • What’s all the buzz about sustainable farming?
  • How to select safe and healthy foods

With every purchase you make at the grocery store, you’re supporting an industry. Industry practices vary greatly between each farmer or rancher and whether or not they’re classified as an organic or a conventional facility. These businesses that bring food to the marketplace can impact the environment and the safety of your food.

In this chapter, we’ll learn the difference between what the words “organic” and “conventionally grown” really mean. We will also review the supply chain process and find out how food is kept safe on its way to you. Additionally we will look into the use of genetically modified organisms and food additives.

Safe Food Choices

One in six Americans will experience a foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over 3,000 Americans will die as a result. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2014, the estimated cost of foodborne illnesses is over $15.6 billion. Keeping the food supply and food served safe is critical to public health.

Supply Chain

Food can travel great distances to reach the consumer in the marketplace. Food starts on its journey with the farmer or rancher. Many farmers and ranchers use co-operatives (co-ops) that purchase their products and handle them in larger volume. Co-ops generally sell the products to processors. If farmers and ranchers don’t use co-ops, the products will likely go directly to processors. During each step of the process, risk of contamination is always present.


Cooperatives (co-ops) are owned and operated by a group of members with a common interest and for the benefit of all members and their community. According to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, farmers get a percentage of the net profits reflecting their contribution of products to the co-op. Co-ops have been working with farmers and have been part of the rural farmer’s foundation for over 100 years.

Processors or manufacturers are the next link in the supply chain. They take raw goods and alter them to add value and convenience for the consumer. This is generally where food is packaged and labeled.

After processing, foods then move on to the distributor. It’s the distributor’s job to deliver the finished products in a safe and timely manner to suppliers for retail buyers. Distributors may carry a wide range of products or a very narrow selection, such as only dairy, produce, or meat. Some distributors skip the suppliers altogether and deliver directly to the customer, restaurant, or store.

Once the products are received by the supplier from the distributor, the supplier fills orders placed by customers. Suppliers may specialize in food service or grocery items. Facilities such as restaurants, grocery stores, and other food-related retail outlets order and receive products from the supplier with set delivery dates and times.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, each part of the food supply chain is dependent on the other parts. When one part experiences problems, the others follow suit. Such problems in the food supply chain generally result in higher prices to consumers.

Keeping Food Safe

In this constantly growing world, our food supply must change to keep up with technology. Ensuring a safe supply is vital to our health. Research is continually evolving to find new ways and technology to secure the supply. According to IBM Research, securing a safe food supply starts as early as soil testing, and the food is rigorously tested along the way until it reaches the consumer.

Maintaining an efficient and time-based supply chain is imperative for food safety. Reputable distributors and retailers ensure food received from manufacturers or producers is kept and transported in a safe manner. If distributors don’t follow proper temperature and time controls, it’s at their expense. Many shipping and receiving facilities at manufacturers, distributors, and retailers check temperatures on items as they’re received and shipped out. Facility workers are trained to take notice of packaging damage or deterioration and signs of temperature abuse. Such items are then refused. Highly sensitive products, such as seafood, often have temperature strips attached to packaging inside trucks showing the lowest and highest temperature the package experienced during transport.

Current local health codes require routine inspections to ensure that facilities where food is prepared and stored are clean. Sanitation standards are designed to reduce the risk associated with the preparation and storage of food.

Organic vs. Conventionally Grown

Organic products are those created with concern for the environment and without using products that don’t occur naturally, such as antibiotics and pesticides. Conventionally grown crops use pesticides, synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Conventional farming, in turn, allows for greater crop yields with less manual labor and hence a lower price.

Organic farmers and ranchers strive to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible while preserving animal welfare. Organic products benefit the farmers and ranchers who able to offer these products at higher prices. According to the USDA, consumers spend over $35 million dollars annually on organic products.


A common term in the sustainability world is carbon footprint. This refers to the amount of pressure on the environment caused by the creation of or use of particular product or system. The footprint is measured by the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in relation to said product or system. There are several online calculators consumers can use to estimate their carbon footprint.

The USDA has developed three levels of organic labeling:

  • 100% organic: Must not contain any portion of any product that’s not 100 percent organic.
  • Organic: Must consist of at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
  • Made with organic ingredients: Must contain ingredients that are at least 70 percent organic and 30 percent nonorganic. However, the 30 percent nonorganic may not be GMO.

There’s no conclusive evidence showing foods classified as organic are any healthier than conventionally raised foods. Many consumers believe the flavor of organic foods is better than that of conventional products. Farming and ranching practices, the location of farm or ranch, and the length of storage of products can all affect a food’s taste and nutritional content.

Products coming from small local farms and ranches have shorter transit and storage times; thus the flavors of these foods are fresher than those of some larger conventional producers and handlers. Sometimes these local farmers and handlers aren’t certified through the USDA as organic due to the expense and time involved. They may have organic practices, but they cannot legally claim their products are organic.

Prices generally reflect the added expenses farmers and ranchers incur from certification and practices. These expenses are passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. When you make the decision whether organic produce is right for you, you must also take into account the perceived benefits with the cost. If you find you want to purchase organic but simply don’t have the budget to match your desire, consider starting with organic versions of produce on the Dirty Dozen list of foods with the highest content of pesticides.


The Dirty Dozen refers to the top 12 fruits and vegetables you may want to consider purchasing as organic. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, independent group that conducts random pesticide residue testing on fruits and vegetables. Over two thirds of the samples of produce on this list tested positive for pesticide residue.

The Dirty Dozen includes the following, with two additional items I’ve added added to the end of the list:

  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Potatoes
  • Snap peas
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • + Hot peppers
  • + Kale and collard greens

Although the previous produce items tested positive for the most pesticide residue, they still fall within acceptable ranges based on governmental guidelines. The following list called the Clean Fifteen lists produce that tested the lowest in amounts of pesticide residue:

  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Cabbages
  • Cantaloupes
  • Cauliflower
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwis
  • Mangoes
  • Onions
  • Papayas
  • Pineapples
  • Sweet corn
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Sweet potatoes

Certification Process

Created in 2002, the USDA Organic Seal has become the standard of excellence for organic products. The seal’s standards specify how crops and livestock should be raised. It’s easy to find this seal on a variety of products throughout your local grocery store. No matter where in the world the products come from, if they carry the USDA Organic Seal, the producer or handler has passed a certification process. Producers and handlers must participate in a yearly onsite review to ensure that the USDA standards are being met. Produce also undergoes random periodic residue testing. California has its own specific set of standards, which allows additional regulations for products produced within that state.

When you see the USDA Organic Seal on a product, you can be assured the product has been verified as following specific standards. There are three categories under the USDA organic standards:

  • Organic crops: Must not use pesticides that are prohibited, GMOs, irradiation, material from wastewater, and manmade fertilizers.
  • Organic livestock: Must have access to the outdoors and their handler must provide 100 percent organic feed and meet all animal health and welfare standards. Animals may not receive antibiotics or hormones to promote growth.
  • Organic multi-ingredient foods: Must be composed of at least 95 percent certified organic components.

Land that has been farmed with conventional methods must undergo a period of 36 months where products that are prohibited for organic use are not applied to the current crops grown. After that 36-month window, then the products may be certified organic.

The producer or handler must describe their operation in writing, which includes listing all products they’ll produce or raise. A history of all substances applied to the land in the previous 36 months must also be provided. In addition, they must write an Organic System Plan, which includes the practices they’ll follow to ensure all standards are met.


An Organic System Plan, also called the Farm Plan, is a system of practices that helps farms plan ahead for problems and situations beyond their control. By having this plan in place, farms are able to forecast sales and expenses, assisting them in maintaining economic viability. Producers and growers are also better equipped to look at their natural resources and see how they can best utilize and conserve them.

Costs to the producer or handler vary depending on the size and type of their operation and the products produced. Certification costs can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. There are also yearly fees to maintain their certification as well as a sales tax on their products.

After the application and fees have been submitted, an certifying agent ensures the applicant’s practices are in compliance with the standards and an inspector conducts an onsite evaluation. If all facets comply with the USDA standards, the certifying agent issues the organic certification.

From this point, the certification is reassessed on an annual basis. Documentation must be provided and inspections must also be carried out. The certifying agent again reviews documents and completed inspection reports to determine if standards are consistently being met to maintain organic status.

Natural Ingredients

The term “natural” is one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in food labeling. Any food that’s processed in any way is no longer technically natural. There actually is no legal definition for “natural.” However, the FDA has stated products may also be defined as natural if they don’t have additional color or ingredients that are manmade or contain artificial flavors. In 1990, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) published a rule clarifying what may constitute natural on food labels with regards to poultry and meats.

Natural flavors may consist of spices, spice extracts, essential oils, and oleoresins. According to the USDA, products with an animal origin, such as dried broth or meat and meat extract, may not be labeled as having “natural flavoring” or “flavoring.” Proteins from natural sources that have undergone a hydrolyzation process also may not be labeled as natural. These products must be labeled as hydrolyzed and include the source of the protein, such as “hydrolyzed milk protein” on the label.


Oleoresins are considered an allowed natural additive to foods. They’re comprised of a combination of essential oils (oleo-) and a semisolid portion of plants or trees (-resin). These products are extracted from plants, such as herbs and spices, and trees like pines and birches.

Beyond the previously specifications listed, the term “natural” should mean nothing to consumers. Be cautious when choosing one product over another claiming it’s natural. The best approach is to read the ingredient list and make the decision for yourself.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

GMOs are currently in hot debate. GMOs are organisms whose DNA has been altered, meaning selected genes from one organism are inserted into the DNA of another organism. The intent is to change or enhance a certain behavior or attribute.

Recombinant DNA, in the form of genetic engineering, has been around since the early 1970s. GMOs have been used extensively in pharmaceuticals, biological and medical research, gene therapy, and agriculture. Insulin is an example of the success of GMO in the pharmaceutical industry. Food from GMOs is called GM food.

Attributes of GM foods are generally deemed as favorable to the supply chain, and ultimately, the consumer. Often, the use of genetic engineering increases the food supply and lowers the food’s price. GM foods may have a longer shelf life, be easier to transport, and be pest resistant.

Many GM crops are designed with the intent to resist disease and pests or be protected against weed killers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the ability to create a crop with bacteria resistant to herbicides has resulted in less herbicides being applied.

Many consumers question the safety of GM food. According to WHO, foods are deemed safe when they have been in our food supply for decades without causing illness or disease. The new GM foods are rigorously studied under strict standards to ensure safety for the environment and human health. These same standards are not upheld for conventional foods.

The safety of GM foods is critical, and the need for testing is widely accepted. Standards for testing GM foods include testing for toxicity, potential allergens, toxins, nutritional benefits, side effects due to the gene insertion, and the stability of said gene. Because GM food is created in different ways by varying technology, each food needs to be tested and considered individually. All GM food products currently on the market have passed all safety testing.

Food Additives

Food additives are either man-made or natural. They are products added to a food that doesn’t contain said additive in the food’s original form. Additives are classified as either direct or natural.

Direct additives are often added to foods during the production process. These additives make the end product more appealing to consumers. Natural additives are include spices, vinegar for pickling, and salt for curing.

According to the National Institute of Medicine (NIM), food additives may be used to enhance nutrition, improve texture, maintain freshness, control the acid-base balance, or enhance flavor and nutrition.

Additives are not always a negative addition. The USDA has compiled a list of additives that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Potential allergies and sensitivities aren’t accounted for under the GRAS guidelines. There are close to 400 additives on the list, including salt, caffeine, calcium citrate, ascorbic acid, and agar.


The FDA classifies monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a flavor enhancer and foods containing this additive must be labeled. While listed on the FDA’s GRAS list, many feel they experience an adverse reaction to foods in which it’s used. According to the Mayo Clinic, no scientific evidence has been found to show a relationship between symptoms and MSG. Any reaction is likely to be short term. If a reaction is experienced, it’s recommended to avoid foods containing it in the future.

Additives on the GRAS list are classified using a numbering system from 1 to 5. Items categorized as 1 have no evidence demonstrating the potential of harm. An additive classified as a 5 on the scale means there’s a complete lack of studies to determine whether it is safe or unsafe. Less than 5 percent of additives are classified as a 5.


When determining the safety of food additives, the NIM states the legal definition of “safe” as defined by Congress: “Safe” is the “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use.”

What Is a Sustainable Food System?

Healthy and sustainable are completely different facets of food. Foods may be sustainable without being healthy. Organic farming practices are generally sustainable agriculturally. However, organic products may be shipped across the country, affecting the carbon footprint and thus their true sustainability.

Consumers should be cautioned about products using words that imply sustainability. Phrases such as “cage-free,” “free range,” or “natural” do not have legal definitions and may not actually be sustainable practices.

Locally Grown

The term “locally grown” generally refers to food products raised or grown within a range of 150 miles around the end user. Often consumers get confused by multiple messages, such as “locally grown,” “organic,” and “sustainable.” Products may incorporate all three labels; however, each is a component on its own and they aren’t interchangeable.

Local sourcing is becoming more popular with restaurants and retail food outlets. Consumers are requesting locally grown and produced items, which keeps the money spent in the community and helps the local economy. Local sourcing also means smaller quantities can be purchased due to decreases in transportation cost and time. Food items are fresher with less exposure to the possibility of time and temperature abuse. Often with local sourcing, the “middle men” are eliminated. The consumer purchases directly from the source, thus decreasing the time from producer to end user.


According to Seafood Watch, sustainable seafood refers to fish and seafood caught or farmed in ways that don’t negatively impact the environment. Fishermen and fisheries have incorporated sustainable practices to ensure the viability of the individual species for future generations. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel when shopping or ordering fresh seafood. This label ensures your selection comes from a source that has undergone a certification process and is reviewed for its sustainability practices.

The availability of products year-round is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when considering local sourcing. Most of the country is not able to produce or raise comparable food products in the off months as they do during prime weather conditions. Purchasers must have back-up options for purchasing in case local providers are not able to meet their needs.

Environmental Impact

The impact of the products we consume on our environment is also considered from the producer all the way down the line to the final consumer. Many businesses have incorporated practices of reducing their carbon footprint in exchange for slightly higher prices. Individuals in charge of purchasing are making the effort to choose products that have low or zero levels of toxins, a reduction in pollutants and fragrances, are more energy efficient, and in general promote the health and welfare of their employees and consumers.

Fresh, Frozen, Canned, or Freeze-Dried?

Fresh produce is generally best when it’s affordable. Packed full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, fresh produce is key to a healthy diet. Eating a variety of colors ensures you get a wide array of nutrients to keep you as healthy as possible. Check your cart when you shop to ensure your food selections match the colors of the rainbow.

When stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables, plan to use varieties likely to spoil quicker at the beginning of the week, such as berries and leafy greens. Produce such as apples, carrots, and potatoes have a longer shelf life and prices stay fairly stable. Premixed salad bags are quick shortcuts, keep fairly well, and are prewashed.

Potatoes get a bad rap because of their high glycemic index and carb count. But in reality, one russet potato contains about 150 calories and is loaded with potassium. Potatoes are inexpensive, have a long shelf life, and are easy to cook for a speedy dinner.

Purchase assorted snack-size veggies to eat on the go. Carrots, celery, cucumbers, broccoli, and bell peppers are all great choices to have on hand. These versatile vegetables keep fairly well and are easy to bag up for snacks.

Buy fruits like melons, peaches, plums, grapes, and berries when they’re in season. Fresh fruit can be expensive, but consider the health benefits and put the cost into perspective. Are you willing to pay $4 for a hot latte but not for a pint of blueberries?

The produce section is filled with convenience foods to make it easy to eat healthy on the go. Check out the produce cooler for bags of apple slices, fresh fruit cups, and sliced melon. There are also precut veggie cups and mixed veggie trays of various sizes. Try precut peppers, onions, and fresh mixed stir-fry vegetables to make cooking super simple. For on-the-go snacks, grab single-serve veggie and dip packs or a premade salad.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at their peak of freshness, making frozen produce a wonderful option. Items can be kept in your freezer for months and pulled out when you’ve eaten up your fresh purchases. Look for varieties without sauces and added seasoning or butter. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also great in smoothies, stir-fries, and soups.

Canned varieties are processed more than fresh or frozen. However, the canned vegetable aisle has good products and better products. Choose vegetables, including beans, that are reduced sodium or no salt-added varieties. It’s a good idea to rinse canned vegetables and beans under cool water before cooking to wash away more of the sodium. Look for varieties without added sauces and seasoning.

Canned fruit can also be a good option if it’s chosen wisely. Fresh or frozen fruits are preferred over canned for their nutritional content. However, if it means you otherwise won’t be eating any fruit, canned is acceptable. Canned fruit should be packed in its own juice. Avoid those sold packed in syrup or with added sugar.


Canned food may seem as though it would last forever. However, sometimes a can’s contents will interact with the metal and cause a chemical reaction to occur. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, rust can occur, causing small holes not seen by the naked eye. Acidic items, such tomato sauce, will corrode the can, resulting in a change in quality, taste, and nutrient content. Temperatures above 100°F also can alter the food’s nutrient content and risk spoilage.

Freeze-dried fruits and vegetables offer another version of produce. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends freeze-dried fruits and vegetables as a healthy alternative to fresh. One serving (¼ cup) can pack almost as much of a nutrition punch as a serving in its original form. These freeze-dried versions are filled with phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. Nutrients that are susceptible to heat, such as vitamin C, are not as plentiful. The lightweight versions also lack the water content found in other fresh produce.

Truth in Labeling

As previously discussed, the FDA regulates and enforces labeling on foods. In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed. This act deregulated the supplement industry. Currently, supplements sold in the United States don’t need to be approved before going on the market. The FDA requires manufacturers to follow good manufacturing practices (GMP). The FDA only reacts to complaints and doesn’t approve or authorize products.

Independent certification services can perform audits to ensure supplements have the nutrients in the amounts specified and no additional ingredients are contained in the product. Private certification agencies include ConsumerLab, NSF, and USP. Not having a private audit doesn’t necessarily mean the product isn’t safe. The same concept applies to those with the seal of certification—not all testing is foolproof. Choose the supplements you take wisely.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Understanding your food’s supply chain can help you make the best food choices.
  • Always read the food label to learn what’s in your food, where it comes from, and if there are any additional ingredients such as food additives or flavor enhancers.
  • Recently harvested produce will always be more flavorful. Seek out local farms or farmer markets in your area for a healthy variety of foods and to help your local economy.
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