various color tomatoes in cartons for sale at a grocery store

No matter which grocery store we go to, it seems like we are bombarded with a plethora of labels on our produce and other groceries. You may walk by a section of “locally grown” food, then see a “non-GMO” call-out, and (of course) there are sections dedicated to both organic and non-organic. 

Over the years, you may have felt like every time you finally decided on what food to buy, a new category pops up or news highlights new concerns, leaving you wondering: should I be eating that instead? With all of the noise about GMOs, pesticides, nutrient depletion in our fruits and veggies, etc., I get it! The world of produce can be confusing, overwhelming, and ever-changing. 

Are the local tomatoes good? Or is organic better? Does local also mean organic? Is everything not labeled non-GMO, genetically modified? Is spending the extra money really worth it? The whole mess can easily make you just want to ignore these foods altogether. 

Never fear! I did all the work to cut through the noise around GMOs, local and organic for you. I’m breaking down the three so you can decide which is right for you. 

Starting with facts about GMO, GMO stands for “genetically modified organism” which refers to plants, animals, or other organisms whose genetic material has been altered in ways that don’t occur naturally. When applied to our food, “non-GMO” labels are designed to let you know the food was made without such engineered ingredients. 

There are two ways to genetically-modify an organism:
1. One type is by mixing two different types of seeds to come up with new, hybrid foods. For example, the “grapple” is a combination of an apple and a grape. 
2. The other type of GMOs has the ability to make an apple not brown after you cut it. This is where GMOs can become tricky; an apple should brown. Similarly, some GMOs are designed to stay alive when sprayed with chemicals used to kill weeds. Although this red fruit may taste like an apple, it isn’t acting like an apple. What’s the deal?

There is a lot of conflicting information about the pros and cons of GMO and whether or not GMOs are good or bad for us. In my work, I stay away from labeling foods in such a way. Instead, I prefer to discuss the information so each of us can make the decisions that work best for us, individually. For me, GMO gives cause for concern. For example, if apple seeds are genetically-modified such that a bug won’t eat the apples, there’s the possibility to use less or different pesticides and chemicals on our produce. On the other hand, the bugs don’t eat them because the bugs can tell they’re not proper food. Red flag? I am left asking myself the question: why does this bug not recognize the apple as food while we do? If even a bug won’t eat it, why do we?

GMOs can definitely be overwhelming, especially with the lack of research out there on their effects. My recommendation is that, when it comes to GMOs, we all err on the side of caution. However, there is no reason for us to drive ourselves crazy looking for non-GMO foods. Completely eliminating them is virtually impossible.

Many fruits and vegetables are not necessarily labeled GMO, which can definitely make the process of looking for non-GMO foods a lot more complicated. Plus, to know for sure could require endless google searches while standing in the produce aisle, as you look to see what brand it is or where it was grown and then dig (no pun intended) to find out how it was grown. I get it, though. We all are enticed by the perfectly-red apple and notice the banana that could double as a yardstick. Instead, employ my go-to method: look at the produce and think: does it look too perfect? Is the apple the size of a softball? If it does, chances are the food is genetically-modified. Remember, just being mindful of the facts behind genetically-modified food is a start!

Another food option people are always talking about is organic food. Organic refers to the farming methods used to grow the fruit or vegetable. To be organic, the food must be produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other artificial agents. 

On top of this, farmers must pay fees to be certified as organic and use the “certified organic” label. This is why some local farmers may not be certified organic even if they follow organic practices.

When it comes to deciding whether we pony-up the extra money for organic, it’s once again, clear as mud. Trying to go organic completely is likely unrealistic. You have probably heard of the “Dirty Dozen,” which was a list of 12 fruits/vegetables to buy organic. Over the years, this list has changed and grown which may be difficult to keep up with as we all have busy lives. 

Here’s my simpler method: if you don’t eat the rind or skin (the outside of the fruit/veggie), then you don’t need to worry (as much) about it being organic. For example, a non-organic grapefruit is less concerning to me than non-organic strawberries because you peel a grapefruit, so the part you eat isn’t directly coming into contact with the pesticides, etc. This isn’t 100% fool-proof and it’s true that chemicals and pesticides can get into our foods through the soil but this is a useful rule of thumb to help us keep our wits!

Again, I think it’s important to emphasize that it’s okay to pick your battles. If you have to decide between non-organic strawberries and Taco Bell, pick the non-organic strawberries. Making concessions does not equate to failure! 

The final topic for us to tackle is “local.” Local foods are foods that come from your farm stand, farmers market, or other locally-sourced places. Like I mentioned before, because farmers must pay for the organic certification, these foods may not say organic. However, that doesn’t mean that this food isn’t grown using organic practices. The best part is, you can ask! 

One of the advantages of buying locally grown food is that you can likely talk directly to the people growing your food. Ask them if they use fertilizers or pesticides or about their farming practices more generally! This gives you the ability to make educated decisions about your produce. 

Just like I employ guidelines for organic and GMO, I also abide by the philosophy: local is best. If you can go to a farm-stand or a farmers market, I highly recommend it. There are many sites like this one where you can find local food, like farm-stands, near you. These foods are most likely to be ripening on the vine the longest because they do not have to survive being shipped over long distances. Local farms are also more likely to rotate their crops, not to mention the produce often tastes the best because it’s in season.

So there you have it, the cheat-sheet to organic, GMO and local produce. Now, you can confidently walk by the endless signs and labels in your grocery store. Don’t forget to look out for local events such as farmers markets! To the extent you can, choose local first, prioritize organic when reasonable and pick your battles. Now go ahead…you got this!