Organic Foods Guide: When To Buy (or Not Buy) Organic

What is organic food in the first place?

Should You Eat Organic?

They line the grocery store aisles looking a lot like other fruits and vegetables. If organic produce is better, how is it better? What is organic food in the first place? It tends to be more expensive because of the farming practices used to produce organic foods. So, what are you buying, exactly? In the following slides, we'll guide you to the organic foods worth the extra cost. And give you tips when there's little or no difference to your health between organic foods and the conventional crops at the store.

Both organic and conventional crops are grown with pesticides, but organic pesticides come from nature.

Peaches

Peaches have a soft skin that you eat. That means you might eat pesticides that are left on the skin. Both organic and conventional crops are grown with pesticides, but organic pesticides come from nature. Studies have found that organic produce has anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 of the pesticide residue found on conventional produce. And studies show that people who eat them eat smaller amounts of pesticides. However, the level of pesticides in all fruit usually meets federal standards. Whether the lower pesticides in organics influences your health has not been proven.

Conventional apples have been shown in various studies to have the same nutrients as organically grown varieties.

Apples

Looking for an easy way to get more fiber? Reach for an apple. Even the peel is good for you. But that's also where pesticides end up. So, if you want to avoid pesticides, organic apples are the way to go. If you don't want to spend extra, take the time to properly wash them under tap water before eating. Conventional apples have been shown in various studies to have the same nutrients as organically grown varieties. Also, studies substituting regular apple juice with organic have not found any significant nutritional differences.

But bell peppers also tend to have more pesticide residue than some other veggies.

Sweet Bell Peppers

This colorful summer/fall vegetable is low in calories and high in vitamin C. But bell peppers also tend to have more pesticide residue than some other veggies. If that's cause for concern, choose organic, especially if you eat these regularly. When it comes to nutrition, though, a three-year study found no difference between organic and conventional bell peppers.

Imported produce is more likely to exceed FDA standards for pesticides.

Celery

About 96% of conventionally-grown celery carries insecticide residue. The FDA found in 2017 that more than 38% of imported celery sampled was in violation of government standards for pesticide residue. That's one of the highest violation rates found for all vegetables. Imported produce is more likely to exceed FDA standards for pesticides. Organic celery may be the wisest choice.

If you don't plan to peel your nectarine, be sure to wash it to remove any germs or pesticides.

Nectarines

This close cousin of the peach is best in the summer between June and August. This high-potassium fruit can be peeled, but is often eaten skin and all. If you don't plan to peel your nectarine, be sure to wash it to remove any germs or pesticides. Although no sampled nectarines exceeded FDA pesticide standards in 2017, the activist group Environmental Working Group singled them out as a fruit best bought organic.

In the lab, extracts from organic strawberries have been shown to have more cancer-fighting antioxidants.

Strawberries

In the lab, extracts from organic strawberries have been shown to have more cancer-fighting antioxidants. And they may be lower in pesticides as well. The FDA found one of 38 strawberry samples was tainted with excessive pesticides in 2017.

n one study, organic pears were shown to have more antioxidants, including vitamin C, than conventional pears.

Pears

Pears, with their thin, papery peels, are often eaten with the skins. The skin is where the pesticide can linger, although about 40% of sampled pears and pear products contained no pesticides at all according to an FDA review. In one study, organic pears were shown to have more antioxidants, including vitamin C, than conventional pears. They also had more polyphenols. Some polyphenols may play a role in reducing inflammation and blood pressure.

Imported grapes are more likely to have pesticide residues, and those residues are more likely to exceed FDA standards.

Grapes

If you want to avoid pesticides in grapes, stick with domestic suppliers. Imported grapes are more likely to have pesticide residues, and those residues are more likely to exceed FDA standards. Organic grapes may have a leg up in nutrition. A study of grape juices found organic types usually had more vitamin C and resveratrol. Resveratrol has been studied for its ability to mimic caloric restriction, which has been shown to extend the lifespan of some animals.

Since organic vegetables have lower pesticide residues overall, organic lettuce and spinach may be best.

Spinach & Lettuce

Lettuce and spinach are both exposed to the elements. And when they're farmed, that means they're exposed to pesticides, too. Imported varieties show more pesticides and are more likely to violate the FDA's safety standards. But domestically grown types sometimes violate FDA standards, too. Since organic vegetables have lower pesticide residues overall, organic lettuce and spinach may be best.

Potatoes grown organically or conventionally show similar nutrition values.

Potatoes

Whether you mash, boil, or bake them, potatoes round out almost any meal. Does it matter if you get the organic type or not? For nutrition, studies say it doesn't matter which type you cook. Potatoes grown organically or conventionally show similar nutrition values.

Organic milk stands out for having more omega-3 fat. Omega-3s are being studied for possible heart health benefits, and as a source of protection from Alzheimer’s disease.

Milk

Organic milk stands out for having more omega-3 fat. Omega-3s are being studied for possible heart health benefits, and as a source of protection from Alzheimer's disease. One word of advice, though: avoid raw milk, which may also be organic. Raw milk is unpasteurized milk, which makes it a more common source of Listeria food poisoning.

There are nutritional benefits to conventional milk, too. Selenium and iodine, both essential nutrients that help with thyroid function, are found in higher quantities in conventionally farmed milk.

Organic meat is mostly made of the same nutrients as conventionally-grown meat.

Beef

Organic meat is mostly made of the same nutrients as conventionally-grown meat. But there is one difference, and it could be important. Organic meat has been shown to contain higher concentrations of long-chain fatty acids. Eating this type of animal fat may help reduce blood pressure, inflammation, and heart arrhythmias. The difference is thought to be due to the natural grazing patterns used for animals raised using organic farming methods.

Organic peanut butter is just ground up peanuts (and maybe some salt).

Peanut Butter

In this case "organic" means "less processed." Conventional peanut butter is a highly processed food. It comes with added sugar and hydrogenated oils. Organic peanut butter is just ground up peanuts (and maybe some salt). Sometimes called "natural peanut butter," the simpler organic peanut butter offers a healthier nutrient profile. Just mix the top layer of oil into the peanut butter when you bring it home.

One study found that organic food had less cadmium, a harmful heavy metal tied to kidney failure.

Baby Foods

There have been very few studies looking directly at the differences between organic baby food and the conventionally-grown type. One study found that organic food had less cadmium, a harmful heavy metal tied to kidney failure. But it also had low selenium, a nutrient essential for healthy brain function.

Many people love papaya for breakfast.

Papayas

Many people love papaya for breakfast. Every bite of this slightly sweet fruit provides vitamins A, C, E, and some B complex vitamins. The FDA studied 91 samples of papaya fruit and juice, and found about 14% of them contained higher levels of pesticides than allowed by federal standards.

Fall broccoli can have nearly twice as much vitamin C as broccoli harvested in the spring.

Broccoli

Broccoli tastes great blanched, boiled, or made into a soup. And it's a significant source of vitamin C, whether it was raised on an organic farm or a conventional farm. If you want the most vitamin C, though, get this vegetable in the fall. Fall broccoli can have nearly twice as much vitamin C as broccoli harvested in the spring.

What picnic would be complete without the cabbage in coleslaw?

Cabbage

What picnic would be complete without the cabbage in coleslaw? Whether it's green or red, cabbage provides plenty of vitamin C, as well as some calcium. Cabbage is not very likely to have pesticides compared to other produce. That's true for both organically grown and conventional cabbage. If it concerns you, though, peel the first few layers off to be sure.

Bananas are considered especially safe from pesticides because of their thick peels.

Bananas

Bananas are considered especially safe from pesticides because of their thick peels. This is a crop that can be enjoyed whether it comes from a conventional farm or an organic one.

Kiwi fruit on a white background.

Kiwis

Kiwis have a sweet, zesty flavor that really shines in a fruit salad. This fruit native to China often lands on the EWG (Environmental Working Group's) "Clean 15" because it tends to have fewer pesticide residues than other produce.

Sweet, frozen peas are singled out by EWG as having few residual pesticides, making conventionally-farmed peas a fine choice.

Peas

A popular side dish, peas are great creamed or whole. Sweet, frozen peas are singled out by EWG as having few residual pesticides, making conventionally-farmed peas a fine choice.

Asparagus is great grilled with lemon, salt, and pepper.

Asparagus

Asparagus is great grilled with lemon, salt, and pepper. And it stands out for its high concentration of folic acid. This spring/summer vegetable is considered especially clean of pesticides by the EWG, a special interest group that regularly tests produce for pesticides.

Whether you buy it organic or standard, corn is a healthy and nutritious food.

Corn

Corn is a summertime staple enjoyed across the US. It's a healthy food that provides lots of B vitamins and fiber. Since corn is tightly wrapped inside its husk, this grain is considered relatively free of pesticides. In fact, when the FDA sampled 6 corn sources for pesticides in 2017, all of the sampled corn was pesticide-free. Whether you buy it organic or standard, corn is a healthy and nutritious food.

Avocados are a creamy delight that goes well with seafood recipes, tacos, and of course guacamole.

Avocados

Avocados are a creamy delight that goes well with seafood recipes, tacos, and of course guacamole. And they boost your body's absorption of vitamins D and E. Although you may need to worry about weight gain if you eat too many, you do not have to worry about pesticides in avocados. Their rough, bumpy skins protect the inner fruit from anything sprayed on the plant.

Close-up of onions.

Onions

Raw and spicy or grilled sweet, onions provide a huge flavor boost for soups, pastas, sandwiches, and so many other foods. They are good for your body, too. Onions produce an anti-inflammatory chemical called quercetin. Known for their layers, onions are well-protected from pesticides. Just cut back a layer or two before cooking.

Always wash your fruits and vegetables under running water—no soap necessary.

How to Reduce Pesticides

No matter what part of the produce section you buy from, you can reduce pesticide residues on your food. Here are some tips:

  • Always wash your fruits and vegetables under running water—no soap necessary. This removes pesticides, but also dirt and harmful bacteria.
  • Take off the outer leaves of leafy green veggies.
  • Rinse off the skin before you peel.
  • Rinse off hard rinds like melon rinds before cutting into them
  • Eat lots of different types of food. Variety prevents you from being exposed to excessive pesticides.
A colorful, garden fresh salad.

Get Plenty of Fruits and Veggies

Your body will feel better, longer, if you eat more fruits and vegetables. People who eat more vegetables have protection from many chronic diseases. Whether you buy an apple with the "organic" label or not, make sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. Just be sure to wash them before you take a bite.

A 2002 law set in place a national organic foods standard.

What the USDA Organic Seal Means

A 2002 law set in place a national organic foods standard. Foods labeled "USDA Organic" must reach the following standards:

  • Produced in a way that protects natural resources
  • Use only approved crops and livestock
  • Refrain from crops and livestock that use genetic engineering (GMOs)
  • Refrain from using ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
The US government grades organic foods, giving them one of three labeling categories.

Organic Labels—What Do They Mean?

Beyond "USDA Organic," the US government grades organic foods, giving them one of three labeling categories. These three labeling categories are:

  • 100 Percent Organic: These are foods that have only organic-certified ingredients.
  • Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients in these foods is organic.
  • "Made With" Organic: In these foods, at least 70% of ingredients are made using organic farming practices.
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