The moment you step into the grocery store, you’re presented with various labels to choose from, making your grocery list go from simple to complicated in seconds. Buying organic seems like it’s something you should do, but the price tag can be a setback. And to make matters even more complicated, the seals on all the items touting things like “natural,” “wild-caught” and “GMO-free” can be difficult to decipher! So before we jump into which foods you should really be buying organic, let’s take a look at the different “levels” of organic labeling so you know exactly what you’re getting.
The USDA says that the goal of organic foods and organic farming is to “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
At the highest level, you’ll see the term “100 percent organic” on food. This means ALL of the ingredients meet the USDA’s standards, meaning that it is completely free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and cannot be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering.
One level below that is “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” meaning the contents must be 95 percent or more certified organic. Any additional 5 percent must be food or processed with additives approved from the USDA’s list.
Another label is “made with organic ingredients,” which refers to foods with ingredients containing at least 70 percent or more organic ingredients, however, the USDA seal will not be present on such items, and the remaining 30 percent cannot be food or processed with additives on the exclusion list.
So in summary:
- 100% organic = all ingredients must be certified organic and any processing aids must be organic
- Certified Organic = it contains 95% or more organic ingredients
- “Made with” organic ingredients = at least 70% of the product is organic
So now that you know the ins and outs of organic labeling, is it really important to buy everything organic? We’ve made it easier for you to navigate the grocery store by discussing the foods you should buy organic, and the ones that you shouldn’t worry about.
To truly buy organic produce from a grocery store, it must meet the USDA guidelines that involve such things as soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives — criteria that promote healthier farming practices both for the environment as well as for your consumption. To achieve the organic label, producers are required to prove that their produce is GMO-free, and was grown on soil free of various substances like the majority of synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides for three or more years.
Have you heard of the “Dirty Dozen”? The list refers to the top 12 fruits and vegetables with the most amount of pesticide residue, and you’ll definitely want to steer clear of them by opting for organic. They are:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
And then there’s the “Clean Fifteen” which refers to the produce with the least amount of pesticide residue that aren’t necessary to buy organic:
- Frozen sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes
Certified organic dairy is the way to go, because you can rest assured the cows didn’t receive antibiotics or growth hormones, and ate 100 percent organic feed. Unlike conventional dairy cows, which consume corn and soy laden with pesticides, organic dairy cows are required to graze on pasture for the entirety of the local grazing season.
Opt for certified organic eggs to avoid dangerous chemicals and antibiotics. Plus, the chickens aren’t just getting their nutrition from grains, but also from grass, bugs and various natural scraps. Organic feed is also less susceptible to contamination, since conventional chicken mash can include slaughterhouse waste, which could have the germs that infected the animals.
To buy organic meat, animals are required to live in an environment that coincides with their natural behaviors, be fed 100 percent organic food, be it feed or forage, and have trace of hormones antibiotics — the latter only to be accepted should the animal be sick.
Organic meat cows are required to meet the same guidelines as organic dairy cows, so it’s best to choose organic beef over the conventional kind whenever possible. This means their meat will have better CLA content, which is the “good” trans-fat in meat and dairy, especially from grass-fed animals. The feed will also be GMO-free and pesticide-free, along with having no antibiotics or hormones.
There are far too many reasons to go organic with chicken! The majority of conventional chickens are injected with water, salt, and preservatives to add moisture and increase flavor. Conventional growers also crows chickens together indoors, which makes them more vulnerable to producing infectious bacteria. This makes it necessary for them to be fed antibiotics, which can result in drug-resistant bacteria spread by people working with the chickens. Organic chickens, however, have access to the outdoors and are free of such antibiotics.
You won’t find organic labels on seafood unless it’s imported from out of the country, as there aren’t official standards for organic seafood in the United States. And such a label means it is farmed, not wild-caught. Be sure to opt for wild-caught, however, as farm-raised fish are typically fed antibiotics and treated with pesticides. Wild-caught don’t contain harmful toxins and chemicals like their farm-raised counterparts do.
Some of your favorite snacks contain pretty harmful ingredients if they’re not organic. Take a look at popcorn. In the United States, 88 percent of corn is genetically engineered. Microwave popcorn is filled with trans-fats as well, unlike organic varieties. Conventional bread, tortillas, muffins, crackers, pasta and cereal, have been shown to contain the insecticide malathion, which is an ingredient in shampoos meant to kill head lice and fleas. Potato chips can contain the pesticide chlorpropham, conventional sauces and condiments are ridden with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and artificial additives, and spices are often treated with pesticides after harvest, which can’t be washed off! However, it is worth considering that buying “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy so if you’re buying a donut or a bag of candy, skip the organic label; you’re not buying that product for it’s health benefits, don’t pay extra.
Health and Beauty Products
From makeup to shower gel, conventional health and beauty products have a slew of strange chemicals in them. Parabens, for one, are synthetic and disrupt your body’s natural hormones, which is thought to harm your endocrine system. Organic health and beauty products only use preservatives such as grapefruit seed extract that won’t harm the body.
Many cleaners contain phthalates, which are suspected to be endocrine disruptors. And according to the Environmental Working Group, conventional cleaning products and the artificial fragrances used in them can trigger asthma, can include carcinogens, and can even include formaldehyde without disclosure.
Overall, be smart about your food choices and know that buying organic when it counts can have a huge impact on your health. Now that you have the necessary tools for shopping the organic section, your money will be better spent where it counts!