Many of us who are into real food would really prefer to buy organic. But, that’s not always in the budget, and not always available. Some people also have reservations about the organic label itself — is it really worth it? (You can read more on that here.)
Let’s dive in and talk about what foods are better purchased organically…and which don’t matter so much.
Should We Buy Organic?
If possible, yes.
Organic foods are grown with fewer pesticides and more natural chemicals that break down faster (yes, they still use chemicals in some cases). They also are often sprayed, if at all, earlier in the growing process so that the fruit or vegetables themselves aren’t sprayed. Most farms use integrative systems like composting, companion planting, etc. to naturally manage pests and increase yields. This all helps to produce healthier, more nutritious crops.
(Yes, organic food is more nutritious. The studies saying it wasn’t were done by growing plants in identical fields in a laboratory setting, under the same conditions, one using conventional chemicals and one not. This is not real-world conditions because it didn’t take into account crop rotation, cover crops, companion planting, integrative systems, natural fertilizers, etc. which real organic farms use. Those are the parts that make the crops more nourishing!)
Sometimes, especially in the summer, locally-grown options are going to be better than commercial organic. It’s best to ask farmers about their growing practices at local farm stands or farmer’s markets and then make your choices. When I can, I buy locally and then freeze or can produce. But that’s another subject.
Bottom line? Yes, organic is better than conventional. But it’s not always an option.
When Does Organic Matter Most?
In my opinion, organic matters the most when it comes to animal products.
When animal products are conventional, you’re facing a number of issues:
- Food the animal ate had pesticides
- Growth hormones and/or antibiotics were used
- Unnatural feeds (corn vs. grass for cows), may be GMO
- Toxins concentrate in the animal’s fat
You’re not just dealing with the pesticides here. Whatever went into that animal is concentrated. And, meat is often processed by dipping it in ammonia to kill bacteria, and milk is often ultra-pasteurized and homogenized. The processing that goes into it is not great either.
These things do not happen with organic/natural animal products. For that reason, I prioritize animal products the most highly. Good choices include:
- Antibiotic/hormone-free (should say on the label)
- Raw dairy
There are options in most price ranges. For families that don’t eat a lot of animal products, this is not such a big deal and won’t add a lot to the grocery budget.
Does Produce Need to be Organic?
I think in a general sense, eating fruits and vegetables in any form outweighs any drawbacks from the pesticides unless you are especially sensitive. But each year, the Environmental Working Group releases a list of the most and least contaminated fruits and vegetables. This information is from their 2014 list.
Top contaminated items:
- Bell peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas (imported)
“Honorable” mentions go to hot peppers (13), blueberries (14), lettuce (15) and kale (16), the next items on the “most contaminated” list. These should be purchased organic where possible. Some of the items on this list (like bell peppers) tend to be really expensive when organic, while others (like apples) aren’t much different in price than conventional. It’s best to keep “dirty dozen” items to in-season purchases if they’re expensive, or rare treats.
The least contaminated items on the list are these (the top of the least is the very least):
- Sweet corn*
- Sweet potatoes
So, these are the “cleanest” crops, where buying organic doesn’t matter as much. The items marked with an asterisk are potentially GMO, so you might want to make sure that the source you’re buying from either isn’t GMO or choose to buy those organic. (Organic corn is pretty much the same price as non-organic anyway.)
We buy organic produce whenever it’s basically the same price as conventional and easily available. We try not to worry about the rest of it. About 50 – 70% of our produce is organic at any given time, depending on the season and what we find.
Where To Buy?
You might be wondering the best places to buy these items! Luckily, there are lots of options now.
This is one of my favorites. They have so many great choices now. Lately, I have found all of these items organic: lettuce, carrots, broccoli, apples (several varieties), kale, edamame, strawberries, blueberries, mango, bananas, raspberries, mixed berries, peas, green beans, corn, and more. There’s probably some that I don’t regularly buy that I’m forgetting right now. About half of those items are fresh, and half are frozen.
Costco also offers Kerrygold butter, organic milk, organic eggs, organic butter, organic chicken (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, whole birds), and organic ground beef. These are usually the best prices on organic items.
Believe it or not, Aldi has more and more organic options, including organic produce now. We’ve seen bananas, apples, tomatoes, carrots, and a couple other items there, in the way of produce. Some locations offer grass-fed beef.
Most standard grocery stores now offer a good selection of organic produce. Meijer is a regional chain but I love shopping there because they have a lot of organic/natural choices. The only thing is because these stores tend to sell less organic than conventional, the prices do tend to be higher than other places.
Earth Fare/Whole Foods
Health food stores are a good place to go for organics. They sell a high volume of them, so they’re more reasonably priced. (You’ll only spend your whole paycheck if you want pre-made organic and natural options!) For example, I might find grass-fed beef at a standard grocery store for $8/lb. — or more — but for $5 – $6/lb. at a health food store.
Farmer’s Markets or Farms
Buying directly from a farm is often a great deal if you can find local farms in your area that offer quality organics. There’s no middleman and some farmers will offer you bulk pricing. This is especially true when produce is in season!
Shop around in your area and see what’s available — you might be surprised!
Do you prioritize organic? Which products and why?