Organic food is frequently encouraged over conventional foods, but it usually comes with a much higher price tag, which makes many of us think twice at the supermarket. Most of us do not have an unlimited food budget, which makes us wonder “Is it that important to buy organic foods?”
What is Organic?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic food as “produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones (1).”
What is the Difference Between Organic and Conventional Foods?
Nutrient wise, organic and conventional fruits and vegetables are nearly identical. For example, an organic carrot has about the same amount of vitamin A as a conventionally grown one.
Some organic meats and organic animal byproducts come from grass fed animals. Grass fed animals and milk from grass fed animals have higher levels of heart health omega-3s, but organically raised animals do not have to be grass fed, so a correlation between organic animal products and omega-3s is not necessarily valid. If you are trying to avoid ingesting antibiotics and hormones, organic animal products are your best bet, but the difference in omega-3 content is not significant enough to encourage organic over conventional solely for heart benefits.
When it comes to avoiding pesticides, organic may be the best choice for certain fruits and vegetables. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a list of the top 12 most pesticide laden foods and the 15 least, the “dirty dozen” and “clean 15,” respectively (2). If purchasing an item from the dirty dozen, try to buy organic whenever possible.
When trying to remember remember the dirty dozen and clean 15, think skin. If the food has a thin, edible skin (e.g. leafy greens or berries), you want to buy organic. If the food has a thick, inedible skin (e.g. banana or pineapple) than the conventional version is fine. Regardless if a fruit or vegetable is organic or not, fresh fruits and vegetables should always be washed before consuming.
The Bottom Line
If your budget allows, buy organic whenever possible, but if you’re trying to save money, be sure to buy the organic version of the “dirty dozen.”
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