To Buy or Not to Buy Organic Food?

A Simple Guide To Buying Organic Food

One of my resolutions is to be more sustainable in 2022 by making more meals at home. And while it’s great that I’ll be disposing of fewer take out containers, grocery shopping has a few challenges, too.

Namely, in these tight economic times, when is it worth shelling out for the organic stuff? Is “all natural” good enough, and does it really make a difference if the chicken got to play outdoors before it became dinner?

Actually it’s easier than you might think to make good choices at the supermarket, plus there’s are even a few iPhone apps to help!

Straight Talk and Standards First, a few organic definitions

  • 100% organic” – means the food has no synthetic ingredients and can use the organic seal — make sure to check for the seal, even if it has “organic” in the name!
  • Organic” – This means the food has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and can use the organic seal
  • Made with organic ingredients” – Food must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but they can’t use the seal
  • If you see meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy labeled “organic“, that means it comes from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones.

Keep in mind that “All natural” doesn’t actually mean anything, you can put that on almost everything! And while organic poultry is best, free-range at least improves your chances of getting an antibiotic-free bird, because it will have grown up in a healthier environment.

The Dirty Dozen Vegetables and fruit

The first stop for organic produce is the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides. This list is put out by the Environmental Working Group and updated each year. The foods that make this list commonly have thin skins that can’t keep pesticides out of the flesh. Also, mainstream farming methods usually require lots of pesticides to grow them. The top 12 to buy organic are:

  • Peaches – the highest pesticide residue
  • Apples
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kales
  • Pears
  • Grapes
  • Spinach & lettuce (leafy greens)
  • Carrots

Another item you probably want to add to the Dirty Dozen list is the potato. The root vegetable was on previous lists, a lot of people just lump them together with carrots.

The other food you may want to include is tomatoes. The controversial red fruit had been on the list, but recently made such a recovery that some experts have gone so far as to put it on the “ok to buy not organic” list.

This could be because of improved farming practices that use lower levels of pesticides, or different testing methods. Because of the thin-skin factor, I’ll be buying organic tomatoes whenever I can.

Other Good Organic Food Choices

  • Milk: These days a high percentage of dairy, even if it’s not organic, is rBGH-free — but not all of it. If you want to avoid extra hormones (that’s all of us, right?) you can read the label, but packaging is inconsistent. When it’s organic, you can be sure it’s rBGH-free.
  • Beef/meat: Think sustainable more than organic. It’s less about animals absorbing pesticides, and more that livestock husbandry takes a big toll on the environment. It requires a lot of water and energy to raise animals! Going organic takes it to the next level by avoiding the added hormones and antibiotics. Best choice: local meat that has the bonus of a lower transportation impact.
  • Peanut butter: Organic PB doesn’t have added hydrogenated oils and sugar, plus it’s delicious. Just remember to stir it if the natural oils separate.
  • Baby foods: Your little one’s new immune system doesn’t need to be tested and stressed by man-made chemicals. Go for the least processed, most pure foods you can find.
  • Coffee: Start with organic, so you know you’re avoiding pesticides and weird chemicals. Then go for “fair trade”, so you know the people who are growing the coffee are making a living wage. Take it to the ultimate level by picking “shade grown” which tells you that it was grown under the rainforest canopy, without destroying wild habitats for farming.

When it’s Okay to go Non-Organic

If all of this organic shopping is adding up to a budget-buster, here’s some good news: lots of produce is fine to buy “not organic.” As a rule of thumb, they’re generally foods with thicker, tougher peels that you discard, like mangoes, bananas, kiwi and pineapple. When you discard the peel, the remaining food has less pesticide residue.

One surprise on the “not organic” list is broccoli. No, you don’t peel it, but apparently it’s so hardy that it requires only low levels of pesticides in the first place. 

Living sustainably is all about making smart choices. Organic is one important piece of the puzzle. Also remember to take into consideration the way something is farmed or grown:

  • Does it require a lot of water?
  • Does it require destroying natural habitats for pasture, like palm oil?
  • How far it has to travel to get to you? The benefit of organic strawberries is seriously reduced if they were flown halfway around the world to get to you!

Think local, in season, and native, and lots of these questions will answer themselves. Plus make for some delicious meals. Bon appetit!