It often falls to mom to take charge of the family’s health, and one major way you do that is by shopping for healthier food. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to tell what will give you the most health benefits for your dollar. Organic food is often a point of confusion. For a long time, I had a vague notion that food labeled “organic” was somehow super extra healthy. I also knew for certain it was pricier than the non-organic versions… and that was the extent of my knowledge. In other words, I knew nothing that was particularly helpful. Through a little research, I now have a better idea of what organic means, what the labels mean, when I might want to buy it, and when I probably don’t need to bother.
- What is “organic”? First of all, the word organic does not mean the food is extra nutritious, as I once thought. It means that the food was produced without pesticides and other chemicals, and without any genetic engineering. In the case of organic livestock, animals must have access to the outdoors and be fed organic foods. While avoiding pesticides and genetic engineering may be a healthier choice for obvious reasons, it won’t turn your apple into a super apple.
- Labels. Organic products must be USDA certified. If a product meets the USDA standards, it will receive a USDA organic label. A product must be all organic, or have all organic ingredients, to use the phrase “100 percent organic.” If the product is 95 percent or more organic it will simply say “Organic”. Both of these types receive the USDA label. Products that are 70 percent or more organic can say “made with organic ingredients”, but they do not get the USDA label. If the product is less than 70 percent organic, it does not get the label or get to use the word “organic” on its packaging. Don’t be fooled by the word “natural,” as it is not interchangeable with “organic”.
- The “dirty dozen”. There are some foods known to be very high in pesticides, and it is recommended that shoppers buy these in organic form if possible. These foods are: apples, peaches, sweet bell peppers, celery, grapes, imported nectarines, strawberries, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, domestic blueberries, and potatoes. Additionally, green beans and kale have recently been added to this list.
- The “clean fifteen”. The flip side of the dirty dozen, the clean fifteen are foods that are generally low in pesticides when conventionally grown, so it’s not as important to buy these organic. The clean fifteen are: sweet corn, onions, pineapples, avocado, sweet peas, cabbage, eggplant, asparagus, mangoes, kiwi, domestic cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, mushrooms, and watermelon. Note, though, that if you have concerns about genetically modified, or GMO, corn, you might prefer to buy that organic; GMO corn is not required to be labeled as such.
In the end, you need to make the best choices for your family with health as well as finances in mind. Organic food is usually more expensive than traditionally grown food, so you may need to make the choice to buy non-organic. You should always wash fruits and vegetables well in running water; this includes fruits with a rind, such as watermelon and cantaloupe, as well as vegetables that you’ll peel, like carrots.
Which produce do you buy organic?