Buying Organic for Beginners

We've been told buying organic is better for our health, but do the benefits outweigh the extra cost? Use this guide to figure out what's worth it and what's not.

Buying Organic for Beginners

Photo: Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Ripe and plump, organic tomatoes are rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and antioxidants. They're an excellent choice because they're free of harmful chemicals and pesticides.

Organic Defined

According to the USDA Organic Program guidelines, for a farm's product to become organically certified, it must have been farmed for three years using organic practices. There are three levels of organic certification and labeling: • "100% organic": Must only contain organically produced ingredients. No synthetic ingredients are allowed by law. • "Organic": At least 95% of ingredients are organically produced. The other 5% are from a list approved by the USDA. • "Made with organic ingredients": At least 70% of ingredients are organic; the other 30% are from a list approved by the USDA.

"Organic" is a term regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It refers to (1) any produce that has been grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers and (2) meats and dairy products that come from animals raised without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, or excessive antibiotics or other drugs.

Benefits of Eating Organic
Although the benefits of an organic diet are still being explored, studies show that by eating organic foods, you reduce your exposure to the potentially negative health risks associated with the chemicals used in traditional farming practices. Research also suggests that organic produce contains higher levels of vitamin C, iron, calcium, and magnesium as compared to traditionally grown foods.

Paying the Price
Without pesticides and other chemicals, a farmer's job can become more expensive, and those increased farming costs translate to the price tags at the grocery stores and farmers' markets. Organic produce, poultry, and meats can cost between 25 to 100 percent more than their nonorganic counterparts. So what's worth the extra cost and what's not? Here's an aisle-by-aisle guide.

Produce
Some fruits and vegetables retain pesticide residue even after they've been washed, particularly thin-skinned fruits and vegetables and those that can't or wouldn't be peeled–so it might be worth the money to buy organic for items such as apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, bell peppers, celery, potatoes, and spinach. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organic research group, fruits and vegetables that contain less pesticide residue, including those with thicker skins or those that are peeled, can be some of the first organic items to go when shopping on a budget. Those include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, papaya, bananas, and oranges.

Tip: When you are produce shopping, make sure the organic fruits and vegetables are kept separate from conventionally-farmed products. They should never touch because pesticide residue from one can be transferred to the other when the produce is sprayed.

Meat, Poultry, Eggs, and Dairy
The EWG also recommends buying organic meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products because these animals are fed organic feeds and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. They can, however, be given certain vitamin and mineral supplements. Organic dairy and eggs are recommended because it's thought that if the animals are given hormones and antibiotics, those compounds will be transferred to the milk and eggs.

Seafood
Seafood is one item that isn't worth the cost because the USDA hasn't set organic standards for seafood, which means wild and farm seafood can be labeled as organic even if it contains mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants.

Beverages and Snacks
If you're a tea drinker, you may want to consider buying organic because when the tea is steeped in water, pesticide residue on the leaves can be transferred. Read labels carefully for organic snacks and cereals– even though they're labeled "organic", they may still be high in calories and fat.

By Rachel Quinlivan, R.D.
Jun, 2008
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