It isn’t always clear where to start when learning about eating organic. On a practical level, how do you find organic stores in your area? And how do you know which foods are most important to buy organic? On an emotional level, how do you convince yourself that buying more expensive food is worth it? Let’s look at what organic foods are, how they differ from other food products, the benefits of eating organic, and why it's so important.
What Does It Mean to Eat Organic?
When you go to your nearest grocery store, you might be used to seeing “organic” stickers or labels as you stroll down your fruits and vegetable aisle, but have you ever stopped to understand what they really mean?
The term “organic” stems from organic agriculture, which is a method of farming that avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also signifies that animals raised for food are fed organic diets with no animal by-products, and are not treated with GMO hormones or antibiotics. (Source)
Standards for Labeling of Organic Foods
To be sure you’re buying what you think you’re buying, it’s important to understand what labels mean.
The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets strict government guidelines for foods that can be labeled as organic. It provides four different labels for organic foods.
“100 Percent Organic”
- Product contains 100% organic ingredients.
- Any kind of salt and water may be included.
- At least 95% of ingredients are organic.
- Salt and water are not included in percentage.
“Made With Organic ________”
- At least 70% of ingredients are organic (excluding salt and water).
- Only specified agricultural and nonagricultural substances may be included in the 30% of ingredients that are not organic.
Organic Ingredient LIstings
- Used for products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients.
- Only certified organic ingredients may be listed as “organic.”
The Benefits of Eating Organic
If you believe food is medicine, you know that what we eat has a dramatic impact on the diseases we are susceptible to and the living conditions of those around us. While many people shop for the occasional organic fruit or vegetable, here’s why you should do so on a regular basis.
Organic Foods May Be More Nutritious
Several studies have found that organic foods generally contain higher levels of antioxidants and certain micronutrients, as well as lower levels of pesticides and heavy metals. (Source, Source)
This isn’t really that surprising. It has been suggested that because plants produce antioxidants and other protective compounds in response to environmental stressors, the less external support they have (from applied pesticides, for example) the more they rely on what they themselves can produce. (Source, Source).
Benefits Compound Over Time
Eating organic is crucial for allowing your body to do what it does best: extracting all the nutrients and vitamins it takes in and using them for bodily functions. You might not see the negative repercussions of an unhealthy diet right away, but it will catch up with you eventually.
A systematic study of research into the long-term effects of eating organic versus conventionally raised foods concluded eating more organic foods may help reduce incidence of chronic conditions such as infertility, birth defects, metabolic syndrome, high BMI, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. (Source)
Should I Buy Organic or Conventional?
Marketing of organic products sometimes utilizes an appeal to emotions over facts. Certain types of products can be far more expensive than their conventional counterparts, and it’s crucial to know which foods you should consider buying organic, and which are okay to let slide.
Foods to Buy Organic Whenever You Can
Meat and Dairy
When consuming meat or dairy products, you may be ingesting many of the hormones and pesticides the animal was exposed to. Consuming clean, healthy lean meats is important not only from a nutritional standpoint but from an environmental one as well — farmers who practice organic farming tend to take better care of the animals and their land. (Source)
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen for 2021
Every year, the EWG, a somewhat controversial pro-organic-agriculture group, lists its top 12 most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables. The organization does its own testing of produce samples it acquires from various sources and bases its rankings on the percentage of samples that have detectable pesticide residue as well as the number of different pesticides found.
Strawberries ranked first on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, with 99% of strawberries tested containing pesticide residues, and up to 22 different types of pesticides being found on a single strawberry. Several other fruits were also high up on the list, including grapes, peaches, and nectarines. Overall, what these fruits have in common is that they don’t have outer shells or thick enough skin to protect them from penetration by pesticides.
The current list includes, in order:
- kale, collard and mustard greens
- bell and hot peppers
Organic Foods You Can Skip if You Need To
The EWG also publishes a list of fruits and vegetables its testing has found to be low in pesticide residue.
Some fruits, such as avocados, bananas, and pineapples, have such thick skins pesticides are unlikely to penetrate them even if they are applied directly to them. And some vegetables, such as asparagus and eggplant, just don’t retain pesticides.
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Clean 15 for 2021
- sweet corn
- sweet peas (frozen)
- honeydew melon
How to Get Started Eating Organic
There are a lot of benefits to eating organic, but fresh organic foods can sometimes be hard to find — and downright costly. There are some cost-saving options to get around this.
- Buy frozen. Frozen foods are often underrated and may be equated with junk food, if you’re thinking of late-night greasy hot pocket meals or garlic bread treats.
However, frozen fruits and vegetables are a fantastic option to consider, because not only do they last longer, they are preserved at their peak and typically maintain their nutritional value.
- Head to your local farmer’s market. Because produce found here often comes straight from the farm, it’s usually a lot more affordable than buying at your local specialty grocery store.
- Buy the whole fruit or vegetable. Chopped up or sliced versions are usually more expensive. So if you do decide to go to the grocery store, opt for the full-sized carrots instead of the mini plastic bags, and save the carrot ends for your next hearty vegetable stock!
The Bottom Line on Eating Organic
Eating organic can come with many benefits, from maximizing the micronutrient content of your food to protecting the environment through more sustainable farming methods. Organic foods can be more expensive, though, so a little thoughtful planning can help ensure your budget goes as far as possible.