Buying and eating organic foods is an increasingly popular trend throughout America and while organic items used to only be found in health food stores, they are now readily available in almost all supermarkets. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in charge of establishing the qualifications that foods need to meet to be considered organic and has created strict production and labeling guidelines that production companies must abide by. To be labeled “organic”, foods must be minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation, which have all been shown to have detrimental effects on one’s health. Additionally, the farming of these foods must maintain and replenish soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, nitrates, and fertilizers.
Organic products are constantly being marketed as the healthier, tastier, and more nutritious choice, yet they cost more than their non-organic counterparts, leaving many consumers wondering whether or not buying organic is worth it. As it turns out, according to the Organic Consumers Association, organic foods, especially raw or non-processed, are in fact 25% more nutritious in terms of vitamins and minerals than the foods derived from industrial agriculture. They contain higher levels of beta-carotene, vitamins C, D, and E, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and chromium that are all severely depleted in foods grown using fertilizer high in pesticides and nitrates.
But is it really necessary to buy and consume only organic foods?
Lucky for us, the Environmental Working Group ranks foods annually based on the amount of pesticide residues they contain and creates two lists: the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15”. The “Dirty Dozen” ranks the twelve foods that contain the most pesticides, and the “Clean 15” contains those with the least. These two lists (pictured below) can be extremely useful for the budget-mindful grocery shopper. Foods such as apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, and strawberries are the top five most abundant with pesticides and therefore qualify as must-buy organic. The Environmental Working Group also added green beans and leafy greens such as kale & collard greens to the 2012 “Dirty Dozen” list because they are often contaminated with highly toxic organophosphate insecticides, which are toxic to the nervous system.
Although the “Dirty Dozen” appears to include many of the produce items that American’s purchase most, do not be discouraged. The “Clean 15” includes foods such as onions, sweet corn, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, and watermelon. Additionally, foods that are typically more expensive even when they are not certified organic such as avocados and mangoes are on the “Clean 15” list, so you do not need to pay even more for their organic versions!
In terms of packaged products, items labeled organic do not necessarily mean they are healthier or more nutritious. As with all packaged products, reading the nutrition label and ingredient’s list is key. In order for a product to be labeled USDA Organic, it must be produced and processed according to USDA standards and contain 95% or more certified organic ingredients. If they are completely organic or made up of all organic ingredients, they may be labeled 100% Organic. Products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may state that they are made with organic ingredients, however they may not bear the USDA Organic seal or use the word “organic” on their labels.
Although organic products are more expensive, the benefits of consuming them are clear. For the budget-minded shopper, keeping the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists in mind can make a huge difference in not only overall health, but also that final grocery bill.