We all know organic foods are supposed to be better for you, but what is the real difference between organic and non-organic? Does it matter if your groceries are organic? Is it more important for certain items in your shopping cart to be organic than others?
There’s a lot of confusion on what the term “organic” means, especially given all the other ‘healthy’ food labels you’ll see in the supermarket: all-natural, non-GMO, and clean are problematic, not to mention Gluten-free and Whole 30.
The good news is that, unlike most other health food labels, “organic” is a regulated USDA certification. In order to earn that sticker, the product has to meet certain measurable standards.
What does organic mean?
There’s an entire division of the US Department of Agriculture dedicated to determining what is required for a food product to be certified organic, which varies greatly from wheat flour to, say, bacon. In the certification process, the USDA looks for “soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.”
When it comes to produce, this means that organic fruits and veggies are grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Additionally, they can’t be genetically modified, nearby water must be unpolluted, and crops must be rotated regularly.
The biggest consideration for consumers should be those pesticides. Consuming pesticides is linked to a wide range of health concerns, including birth defects, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimers. Think about it: you’re eating small amounts of bug poison every day for years and years. But which conventionally-grown foods contain dangerous amounts of pesticides and which either don’t absorb or don’t need chemical interference?
To help us sort out what produce is most important to buy organic, the Environmental Working Group puts together a list each year–using USDA data–ranking pesticide levels found in produce that had been washed and peeled according to typical consumption practices (bananas were peeled, grapes were not).
The full list is available on their site, but they publicize a Dirty Dozen, which lists the 12 foods with the highest concentration of pesticides, and a Clean 15, which names the 15 foods with the lowest amounts of pesticides. The EWG strongly recommends buying organic produce on the Dirty Dozen list, while the Clean 15 are the safest to buy conventionally.
The Dirty Dozen 2019
The 2019 Clean Fifteen
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
The good news is that the EWG reports that more than 70% of the foods tested on the Clean 15 list had no detectable pesticides. So be sure to grab organic strawberries this spring, but you can probably save some money on your avocado toast habit and buy conventional. Don’t let this information limit your intake of fruits and vegetables–they’re still essential for human health. Just use these lists as a tool if you can’t afford to buy all organic produce.
What about other foods?
Other rules apply to animal products and packaged foods. Meat, dairy, and eggs must come from animals that are not treated with antibiotics or hormones, eat 100% organic feed, and “are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors” to be USDA certified. This means that grazing animals have access to a pasture and chickens aren’t kept in cages.
When it comes to food health, the biggest concern for conventional meat, dairy, and egg products is antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics creates resistant strains of bacteria with the potential to cause large-scale food borne illness and bacterial infection. Bottom line: try to buy organic animal products when you can, for your sake and Bessie’s.
Packaged foods get even more complicated. Organic ingredients can’t be combined with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, but may contain certain “non-agricultural” products like baking soda and pectin. You may want to stick with organic packaged meat products, since the traditional preservatives for sausage and bacon (sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probably carcinogenic.
Some packaged meat products that don’t use harmful preservatives, but haven’t gotten their organic certification, will label their products “No nitrates added” and are a good middle-ground option. When it comes to other packaged goods that don’t contain meat, you can opt for the non-organic brownie mix.
This might be a lot to keep track of when you’re knocking carts with everyone else on a Sunday at Trader Joe’s, so here’s the short version:
Keep your Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists on hand, and buy organic Dirty Dozen items
Buy organic or antibiotic-free whenever you can
Get preservative-free bacon and sausage, but skip the organic goldfish crackers