Square bins of various dried and organic fruits and nuts

The World is a Carousel of Colors

For a colorful world of grocery – from bright red raspberries to deep blue corn chips –  it is remarkable how the organic food industry has various shades of grey. While this blog post is no “50 Shades of Grey” novel, it is a hot topic with no perfect answers!

Some of the big “grey dilemmas” I personally struggle with include:

Going the Distance: Local non-certified organic products from my town’s farmer’s market vs certified organic from across the world
Comparing Certifications: Who can I trust? Do certifications even matter?
Marketing Authenticity: The product is self-declared organic or “all natural,” does that count for anything?
Companies Behind the Products: Organic products from large corporations vs. from smaller, independently owned companies
Price Point: How much is reasonable to pay for premium sourced, organic products?
Miscellaneous: Don’t even get us talking about seafood! Some parts of the industry are still in creation!

To be honest, I don’t have the answers to these questions. They are intended to stimulate a dialogue. The right side of my brain questions why a perfect mathematical equation does not exist yet to simply solve for the best decisions. Perhaps some mobile engineers are creating an app as we speak to help consumers make more informed purchase decisions purchase smarter – but while we wait, let’s start talking about 4 key topics: LocalCertificationsPrice Point, and Simplicity.


Buying local is not just the latest hop topic for “hipsters,” it is a truly important movement that is here to stay! Defining local can be subjective – some common definitions include:

  • Made in your state or region
  • Made within 100 or 250 miles of your home

Local is critical to our long-term food sustainability because it can help the amount of miles the food travels to you (reducing carbon offsets), supports the local economy (keeps your neighbor in business), and helps you purchase fresher (may be even more nutritious for being fresh picked).

As Albert’s Organics explains: “The ideal, of course, is to find food that is both local and organic. Not to choose one over the other, but rather to encourage and educate our local growers to embrace the organic farming system.“

If your local farm tells you that they practice organic farming but cannot afford the certification, be sure to refer them to the Certification Cost Share.


Let’s go back to the basics. What is the purpose of a certification at its core? In general, a certification refers to the confirmation of certain characteristics of an object. This confirmation is often provided by some form of external review, education, assessment, or audit. In short, hearing it from an unbiased, third-party is more trustworthy to ensure something is what it says it is. 

Some of the industry favorites to be on the lookout for include:

Certified Organic
Fair Trade
B Corp

These certifying organizations serve as reliable sources that your product is authentic and genuine in the claims they are making.


As in the saying, “Tom-ay-to, Tom-ah-to”, I can imagine how a conversation would go between my thrifty Irish grandmother and me:

Nana would say,“Why would we spend extra money for these organic Tom-ay-toes? It looks identical to the cheaper Tom-ah-toes.”

I would reply, “Nana – the certification really matters on these Tom-ay-toes. There’s  a whole story behind the food from seeding to harvesting – more than what we can see in the price tag”

In reality, it can be tough to justify the expense for organic when two products practically look identical. It helps me to think that you are not just buying a look-like but you are actually:

  • Ensuring you eat products without fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals.
  • Supporting an industry that needs growth.
  • Increasing the “demand” of supply/demand which overtime will drive prices lower.
  • Thinking preventative health. We do not know the long-term implications of the interactions between fertilizers/pesticides in our food. While the verdict is still out, I think reducing the risk is worth the cost.
  • Leveling the playing field. The main reasons conventional often costs more are because the farms get subsidies that you end up paying for through your taxes. When you buy organic, you are more closely purchasing the “true value” of the food.

Simple Ingredients

Lastly, it is important to take a look at the ingredients list. For example, it is hard to compare a single-sourced fair trade coffee bean with a certified organic coffee beverage featuring dozens of different ingredients. I would recommend that the less processed and simpler ingredients, the more pure the product on the scale of natural to conventional. Also, a fun way to filter your food is to see if you can actually read and understand the ingredients on the ingredient list.

Call to Action: 50 Shades of Comments: Tell us – How do you navigate the spectrum of grey? Any tips or tricks?

~Laurie Burgess | Organic Matters Blog

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog www.organicmattersblog.com covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture  www.unfifoundation.org. Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association www.ota.com.

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