When food goes bad faster than you anticipated it can be frustrating. And when you’re one of the eight in ten Americans choosing to spend your hard-earned money on organic food, you are focused on buying the safest and most nutritious food. That’s an investment you never want to waste.
So what do you do when your hard-earned money goes up in smoke because your organic food goes bad before you get the chance to eat it?
A well-known experiment was done by Today’s Janice Lieberman ten years ago, which found out that organics, on average, last less time after purchase. While this specific experiment had some questionable testing and conclusions, the answer is still true – organic products can have a different lifespan to conventional products on those same shelves, factoring in storage, ingredients and handling.
So, does organic food have a shorter shelf life than conventional products?
Well, sometimes. But not always…
So what is the difference? And what can you do to make your organic food last longer?
The Longevity of Produce Begins Before Harvest
Conventional crops have a myriad of spray, dip and treatment options that begin on the tree and continue into the grocery store. These chemicals combat rot, pests, fungus and more, but they also disrupt our endocrine and nervous systems and can cause cancer.
The chemicals used by the organic industry are a bit different. Organic handling allows for use of chemicals, but these chemicals are not persistent, meaning they wash off easily, and do not bio-accumulate in the environment. They are safer for humans, birds, fish, and everything else in the environment. And because organic farming practices require farmers to have a plan that slows the escalation and use of chemicals down, they are not used very frequently. In fact, they are more of a last resort after more sustainable methods have been tried.
The important thing to remember is you have a trade off. These options help preserve and protect fruit, but don’t always prevent pest and fungus damage after harvest, making long-term storage risky before it is even out of the ground or off the tree.
Solution – Because organics are not sprayed with anti-bacterial chemicals, bacteria can build up on organic fruit and vegetables and cause spoilage faster. Clean produce with a vinegar-water solution to clear off any bacteria, spores or pesticides before storing. For leafy greens and berries, Mamavation recommends a soak in a mix of one part vinegar to three parts water, or for harder produce such as apples, a spray with the same solution and scrubbing with hands or a brush. Follow both options with a rinse of cold water.
Preservatives and Additives Add Shelf Life But Also Risk
Processed foods are engineered to last a long time on the shelves with preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHA & BHT are antioxidants that are used in shelf-stable products essentially to keep fats in the products from going rancid. BHA is labeled in California as a known carcinogen and its chemical “cousin” BHT is a possible endocrine disruptor. Sulfites, nitrates and nitrites are commonly used as well, along with salts and other ingredients. Nitrites react with a protein in the digestive system and create nitrosamines, which are cancer causing compounds. The synthetic estrogen propyl paraben, found in products such as tortillas and muffins, have been linked to infertility in women and acceleration of cancer growth in breast cancer cells.
In contrast, organic producers use preservatives such as vegetable and herb extracts, citric acid, and antimicrobrials. These aren’t always as powerful as synthetic preservatives, but have less risk of cancer, infertility risks or endocrine system issues. The trade off is that organic products don’t last as long on the shelves.
Solution – Keep avoiding harmful chemicals. Since organic food has a different shelf life and refrigeration needs to conventional produce, only buy what you need. Read labels for shelf life and store in the fridge or freezer long term (for items such as flour).
Ethylene Gas Affects Storage Life
Have you ever put a banana or apple in a paper bag with an avocado to speed up ripening? That apple is off-gassing a hormone that is completely natural, called ethylene gas. Ethylene gas is released when certain fruit and vegetables ripen and can impact how fast they go bad.
Why is caring about ethylene gas important for organic food? Being ripe during transport and handling allows for more chances for injury, rot and bruising. Longer transport times give greater risk of natural off-gassing affecting the produce around it. And knowing what fruit and vegetables produce ethylene gas, and which are affected by it most, is useful for storing organics so they last longer in your fridge or on the counter.
Solution – Under-ripe produce? Stick an apple with it in a paper bag (they need to breathe) to help speed ripening. Don’t want them overripe? Be careful to separate produce based on ethylene gas sensitivity – check out our handy chart for a quick guide.
Waxes Protect Fruits and Chemicals
Both conventional and organic produce can be covered in a protective coating for transport and even during the growing process. Americans are used to seeing a shiny finish as their proof of a healthy fruit, but many produce items such as apples, plums and pears produce their own protective coating to prevent moisture loss and protect themselves. When picking the fruit straight off of the tree, an apple or plum may show its natural wax coating as a dull white “bloom”. This coating is removed in the handling process.
For organic produce, the USDA only allows carnauba wax (made from carnauba leaves), shellac and beeswax. Shallac, which is made from an excretion of the lac insect or “lac resin” is also approved in an unbleached form on organic produce. If you shop at a farmer’s market, the produce is less likely to be coated with wax. Take more care in handling local produce from the farmers market because lack of wax can mean additional risk of bruising or damage.
Conventional produce has a longer list of acceptable packaging to protect fruit from bruising, pests and fungus. This may sound like a good thing, but the concern is that the wax is holding in pesticides and chemicals that were applied during growth and after harvest as they were prepared for shipping. Those chemicals and synthetics can contain carcinogens, toxins, and neurotoxins, endangering consumers and farmers alike. Waxes can be hard to wash off, so buying conventional puts you at risk of ingesting some of the coating and the chemicals still on the apple.
Solution – Produce bought at a market or store is likely to last longer. If you want to avoid coatings, buy at a farmer’s market. If you have to buy conventional, wash well with fruit wash or vinegar solution to remove the coating and the chemicals trapped underneath.
Cold Storage Adverse Effects
Produce is chilled for shipping and storage, especially in the case of organic produce. But because organic has limited means of protection from pests, fungus and over-ripening are a concern that refrigeration will temporarily solve before arriving at the store.
For conventional produce, the protective coatings and dangerous chemicals they receive in the growing and handling process will protect them from contamination in refrigeration. But, as they wait coated in health disrupting chemicals, they will contaminate the area around them.
Organics in refrigeration have serious risks associated with the cold storage process. For instance, it is very important for storage to be properly cleaned and for produce to be cleaned before put into storage. Fungus spores can sling to circulation fan blades in the chamber. When apples are sold at room temperature, fruits can become blemished as they wait to be sold.
Long term storage also degrades the quality of the fruit. For instance, the antioxidants in apples degrade sharply after three months. So there is a careful balance between nutrition and shelf life. If you want the maximum amount of nutrition, opt for organic at the farmers market.
Solution – Organics will need to be cleaned with vinegar quickly to wash off contamination from any fungus or bacteria. Buy local as much as possible to negate the chances of contamination from conventional fruit. Clean produce completely with those vinegar/water solutions we prescribed.
Organic Dairy Lasts Longer
Organic dairy lasts longer than conventional dairy because it has been processed differently, so it can withstand traveling greater distances. This is because there aren’t as many organic farms around the country as regular farms. In fact, organic acreage accounts for less than 1% of all farmland in the United States. Over a third of organic milk is produced in the west – almost 60,000 cows in California alone. The length of time it takes to get to the store is likelier longer than conventional milk, and therefore it needs to be processed differently.
Organic dairy is processed using ultrahigh temperatures – heating the milk to 138 degrees Celsius, or 280 Fahrenheit, for 2-4 seconds. It creates shelf-stable milk and causes a sweeter taste by caramelizing some of the sugars. Pasteurization, the standard process, only kills the disease-causing bacteria for conventional products. (FYI, heat treatments are also used on strawberries and other produce to kill contaminants.)
Raw milk has several amazing benefits if you can get it fresh from the farm, including a higher amount of protein, beneficial bacteria and enzymes that create bio-available nutrients. We recommend purchasing directly from a farmer if you are in a state that allows for raw milk. It’s safer and tastes the best. If you want to avoid pasteurization, opting for organic raw milk is your best bet.
Solution – Buy organic for longer shelf life and health benefits and to avoid synthetic hormones and antibiotics. If you choose to avoid pasteurization, keep raw milk stored in glass and between 35-38 degrees (which means using a cooler with ice for transportation if necessary from the farm).
Organic Meat is Better For You and Has Less Bacteria
A Consumer Reports investigation found less bacteria on organic beef than on conventionally produced ground beef, including twice as many samples contaminated with antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”. The level of bacteria can affect life in the fridge as well as food safety after it is cooked. Thus, in theory, organic meat should last longer than conventional meat.
Conventional processed meats have synthetic nitrates (which can develop into cancer causing compounds) and nitrites added for preservation and to keep the meat appearing red. Synthetic versions of nitrates also contaminate water sources, affect pregnancy outcomes and are correlated with cancer.
In contrast, the preservatives organics use include vegetable extracts, cranberry concentrate and other microbial agents. They keep organic meat safe longer, but the challenge is to make sure it still looks appetizing while using these ingredients. You may notice it changes colors faster, but cranberry extract can have very bright color, helping to avoid this.
Solution – If you want to avoid dangerous bacteria and cancer-causing chemicals, buy organic meat. Cook meat or freeze as soon as possible to avoid contamination to other foods and do not consume raw.
How To Keep Organic Food At Home
There are many different rules for food storage that are dependent on the kitchen and refrigerator storage we have at home. Occasionally, we mess up or an appliance fails on us.
Make sure to close lids tightly and seal frozen food away from air to avoid freezer burn and drying out. Mark dates opened on package with a Sharpie before placing in refrigerator. Store meat low in the fridge and in a separate container for less chance of contaminating other products. Know how to store produce properly, whether it needs a cold, dark place, a refrigerator, or to be on a counter top.
Solution – For more tips on keeping organic food safely, check out Mamavation’s guide for food storage.
Why Choose Organic Food?
So with all of the storage challenges, why choose organic food? Conventional food is more convenient storage-wise and stays store-ready longer. But, the health risks associated with synthetic additives and toxic persistent pesticides, loss of flavor and nutrients due to harvest before ripening, or long-term refrigeration process outweigh the loss of convenience in dealing with organics. And there’s the environment to consider.
So choose local as often as possible to alleviate risks with transportation and contamination. Go for organic milk for shelf-life and local raw if possible for health benefits. Choose organic meats to alleviate chances of dangerous bacteria being present.
Do you have any additional tips on how to store organic food? We would LOVE to hear from you and how you have been doing it! Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for supporting Mamavation!