When you make a grocery list, you might include apples or lettuce. However, when you get to the store, it’s not that simple of a choice. You have “conventional,” “organic” and “local” options. According to the USDA, conventional produce can be grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, while organic produce mostly cannot. (Organic farms have the option of using certain permitted pesticides.) There isn’t an exact local definition, but these foods tend to be grown closer to where they are sold, such as at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and CSAs (community-supported agriculture); sometimes they can be purchased at grocery stores.
Over the years, as organic food has become more popular, you may have also heard of local benefits as well. The idea is that these grow on smaller farms, will have more nutrient-rich soil and won’t have to ship their goods as far, so they’re at their freshest, both are thought to produce more vitamin and mineral packed foods.
Local options aren’t available to everyone, depending largely on the seasonal offerings in your area. (For example, in the Midwest during the winter months, it’s harder to find farmer’s markets or plenty of locally grown foods). Choosing an organic or local option also depends on your budget. Here’s what you need to know before your next grocery shopping trip.
“Nutrients [in vegetables] vary from year to year, and it depends a lot on how nature handles your hands,” says Jenny Schmidt, a farmer and registered dietitian based in Sudlersville, Maryland. The most important factor here is soil pH, which determines a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the soil.
Farmers can adjust this pH by performing a soil test. Then, they add what they need – e.g., lime, calcium, magnesium – to make sure the soil is healthy while still maintaining organic matter, Schmidt says. After that, though, the soil needs to have the right moisture level. Otherwise, nutrients won’t transfer from the soil to the plants. For example, “if you have a drought, you won’t get the same nutrients because there’s not enough moisture for the plants to absorb them,” says Schmidt. Similarly, waterlogged soil won’t help if the season is particularly wet. Plants standing in the water won’t take up the nutrients either. Another factor. Different regions have different soil types (and therefore different nutrient compositions), says Schmidt. As a result, organic doesn’t necessarily beat conventional or local because soil health can vary greatly.
When choosing organic versus conventional (and remember, local may be conventional or organic), “the argument for choosing organic is not so much about nutrition,” says Sharon Palmer, RD.” Indeed, some studies have found produce to be higher in various phytochemical compounds. However, the nutritional differences are not as significant.” Palmer says the bigger impact is that foods that don’t use synthetic pesticides, have more biodiversity, and use compost instead of fossil fuel-based fertilizers are all things that are better for soil health and ecosystems. This is consistent with the planetaryist diet, which focuses on more plant-based foods, grown in a sustainable way. Adding more produce to your diet can also help you be healthier overall.
The longer fresh vegetables sit and travel, the more nutrients are lost, and this happens whether they are organic or conventional. Many organic farms often ship their food across the country and they can spend more time at distribution centers before hitting the grocery store shelves.
On the other hand, when you buy local food from a market or CSA, “the food is often harvested the same day, so they’re ripe and mature, which means they taste fresher,” says Palmer. That’s why you should also consider buying canned and frozen products that are harvested and stored at the peak of ripeness, so they don’t lose nutrients, Palmer adds. These can also come from anywhere, which means local or organic forms of canned and frozen aren’t necessarily better.
The organic vs. local debate isn’t so clear-cut if you’re just looking for a nutritional answer. You have to take into account soil quality, growing season, region and travel distance to determine if local carrots are better than organic or conventional carrots.
If you can afford to buy local, the biggest benefit is the economic impact of your choice.” I do recommend buying local and in season because it’s usually fresher and it supports local family farmers,” says Schmidt.
Ultimately, it’s important to buy food that aligns with your values.” I recommend that people try to frequent their local farmer’s market and ask the farmers how they grow their produce,” she says. Depending on their answers, you can see if that aligns with how you want to spend your money.
If you really want to go local and organic on the cheap: plant a garden (in your backyard, on a small balcony or deck, in a pot on your windowsill).” Lettuce is a great place to start,” says Palmer, because it grows quickly and doesn’t require a lot of attention.