When walking through the grocery store, it's easy to get overwhelmed by all of the options. If you're trying to be "healthier", make better choices, or decrease the amount of toxins you put in or on your body... should you be buying organic everything? What does organic even mean? If organic is better, how? While I try to buy mostly organic, it isn’t always the way to go. 1. Organic is expensive. 2. Eating only foods labeled organic is nearly impossible. So what are you buying, and why are you buying it? It’s mostly important to understand where the food was grown & how it was grown.
GOOD NEWS… It isn’t always necessary to buy organic! Let's break this down.
Why is organic so expensive?
The farming process for organic food is more labor intensive as these farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs to aid in the growing process or extend the shelf life of food. The process of obtaining organic certification is also very expensive for these farmers. Providing organic feed for their animals can cost almost twice as much as normal feed. Organic farms are also usually smaller than conventional farms, which means they often run with little to no government financial aid. These are some of the explanations for the higher price tags on organic foods.
Why is organic considered "healthier" or better for you?
Maintaining an organic diet, or mostly organic, does have its health benefits, like preventing the effects of high pesticide exposure. High pesticide consumption can cause birth defects, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and more. Organic farming is also more eco-friendly and will help reduce your carbon footprint (if that's something you're interested in or passionate about). Organic farming practices use less energy, reduce soil erosion and pollution, conserve water, and increase soil fertility. When it comes to more nutrients... in comparison, organic foods have not been found to contain a considerable amount more. Organic simply just pertains to how the ingredients in the food were made or grown.
What does the USDA Organic seal mean?
In 2002, a law was made that set a standard for national organic food. Foods that are labeled “USDA Organic” must:
Be produced in a way that protects all natural resources
Use only crops and livestock that have been approved
Refrain from crops and livestock that use genetic engineering (GMOs)
Not include the use of ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, and synthetic pesticides/fertilizers
What about other Organic labels?
Aside from “USDA Organic”, there are several other categories. These labelings include:
Organic - At least 95% of the ingredients are organic
“Made With” Organic - At least 70% of the ingredients use organic farming practices
100% Organic - Only organic-certified ingredients are used
So how do I know when to buy organic and when not to?
Let’s look at the DIRTY DOZEN & CLEAN 15 list. This list is updated every year and details what produce is grown with the most and least pesticides. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit organization that researches and ensures the health and safety of humankind and our environment. They created this ranking of pesticide contamination on 47 popular produce items after thorough testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Now they can’t be perfect, but this list is a great guide to those who care about consuming more natural products.
The Clean 15 = 15 fruits/veggies with the LEAST pesticides - OK to buy conventional
The Dirty Dozen = 12 fruits/veggies with the MOST pesticides - Best to buy organic
So avocados and sweet corn made the top of the list for cleanest produce, which means less than 1% of the samples had any visible pesticide residue. More than 70% of the rest of the clean list had no pesticide residue either.
Spinach always falls somewhere on the dirty dozen list as toxic bug killers, like permethrin (which is banned in many countries), are often found. Kale, one of the most trendy superfoods, is also one of the most contaminated. Strawberries also fall on the dirty list because over 22 pesticides have consistently been found on them.
Foods that fall in between the 2 lists, like carrots or bananas could go either way. If organic is not much pricier, that could be your best bet. But if the organic option is excessively priced, it is safe to buy conventional.
So when do we buy organic?
If it’s on the Dirty Dozen list
When it doesn’t cost much more than the conventional version (eg: bananas)
Things that are so close to the Dirty Dozen list (eg: blueberries)
When do we just buy conventional?
If it’s on the Clean Fifteen list
Things that are so close to the Clean Fifteen list and are much more expensive when organic (eg: mangoes)
How do we reduce pesticides either way?
Whether you choose to buy organic or conventional, it is possible to reduce pesticide residue on the foods you purchase.
Wash your produce under water (no soap needed) to remove dirt, bacteria, and pesticides. This doesn’t get rid of everything, but washing and scrubbing can still reduce exposure.
Vinegar is also a GREAT way to clean produce. Let your produce soak in vinegar in water, then rinse after. Some Fruit & Veggie washes work well too (like the Young Living Thieves wash for example).
When it comes to leafy greens, be sure to remove the outer layers or leaves.
Rinse off the skin of any fruit or vegetable you peel to ensure bacteria or pesticides aren’t spreading.
Rinse off all hard rinds (like on a melon or spaghetti squash) before cutting.
What about meat, eggs, fish, and dairy?
Conventional livestock is often fed antibiotics to protect against illness. This helps these farmers raise animals in crowded or unsanitary conditions. Conventionally raised animals can also be injected with synthetic growth hormones to aid in gaining weight faster or producing more milk. Traces of these substances can be ingested by consumers, which may lead to antibiotic resistance and increase one’s risk of cancer. Organic milk and meat are richer in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids by more than 50%, which can protect against heart disease and decrease the risk of depression, stroke, and cancer. This is mostly due to the animal’s diet. Animals that eat more grass have lower fat levels and higher omega-3 levels than grain-fed animals. The same is true for eggs. Omega-3 levels are higher in organic eggs due to the hen’s diet. Organic milk also has less saturated fat than non-organic milk. However, the amount of omega-3 in 11 quarts of organic milk would equal the amount in 4 ounces of salmon. So this doesn’t end up making a huge difference. If omega-3 is what you’re looking for… salmon is the way to go. When it comes to fish though, no organic standard exists in the U.S. as it is difficult to regulate the diet of wild fish. Your best bet here is to ensure you buy WILD fish, not anything that has been farmed. Bottom line: Buying organic meat or dairy would mostly be a preventative action that would decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, hormonal imbalances, and antibiotic resistance.
Buy frozen fruits and veggies when recipes allow to get rid of high costs and prevent fast spoiling.
Buy non-organic avocados to save your money. The cost of even conventional avocados is so high! Your health is not at risk with conventional avocados, but your bank account may be if you go with organic.
Buy in-season produce when you can. These fruits and veggies are cheapest and freshest.
Find out what days of the week produce is delivered to your grocery store to ensure you’re getting the freshest options.
“Organic” labels when it comes to prepared foods does not always equate with “healthy”. The label is often used as a marketing ploy. “Organic” snacks and desserts can still be high in calories and loaded with unnecessary fats and sugars.
If you have a local farmer’s market, check it out! This ensures your food is fresh AND supports small businesses! Local doesn’t always mean organic though, so find out which vendors use organic farming practices.
Take the below list with you when you shop so you always no when organic is the way to go.