One of my closest friends has officially drunk the organic Kool-Aid. And by organic Kool-Aid, I don’t mean a beverage that is produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, conventional pesticides, synthetic ingredients, bioengineering, radiation, sewage sludge or other nasty-sounding stuff. I simply mean that she has jumped on board with the “organic foods” craze – and boy is she obsessed!
Here’s what I struggle with: Every so often a report comes out saying that pesticides and other chemical products in food are incredibly damaging to your innards, causing cancer and other unpleasant health conditions. On the other hand, skeptics of organic foods are always finding new evidence that buying organic is akin to flushing your lunch money down the toilet. So which is it? Are organic foods really better for you? Or is it all a hoax?
I’ll level with you here: I’m no scientist. I barely passed chemistry. I just really want to know whether organic food is really worth the money. What does “organic” even mean? How do you know if it’s really organic? When should you spend the extra dollar for food that’s untouched by sludge? Read on to find out!
What Does “Organic” Mean?
Here’s what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has to say on the subject:
“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
Wow, that was a mouthful! Basically, a food can be considered “organic” if it’s produced via “eco-friendly” methods and without the presence of nasty stuff that the USDA doesn’t consider organic.
How Can You Tell if a Food Is Organic?
That’s easy – look for the USDA organic seal. It looks a little something like this:
If it doesn’t have the seal…well, they can’t legally claim it’s organic!
There are a few different categories of USDA-approved organic foods. Here’s what they are and what they mean:
- “100% organic.” These foods are made with all certified organic ingredients. All processing aids (ingredients used in production that aren’t present in significant amounts in the finished product) must be organic as well.
- “Organic.” This means it has at least 95% organic content.
- “Made with organic.” These products don’t have a USDA seal, but are made with at least 70% organic ingredients, excluding salt and water.
When Should You Buy Organic?
The authority on this topic is the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen List.” The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an environmental health research and advocacy organization that seeks to get Americans the facts so they can make healthier choices.
The “Dirty Dozen List” is an annual list (currently in its second year) that highlights the types of produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue – which are therefore the most important to buy organic. 2013’s list includes the following types of produce:
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Hot Peppers
- Imported Nectarines
- Sweet Bell Peppers
The current list also includes a “Plus” category which includes two foods that don’t meet traditional criteria for the “Dirty Dozen List” but are commonly contaminated with pesticides that are highly dangerous to the nervous system. These foods are:
- Kale/Collard Greens
- Summer Squash
When’s It Okay Not to Buy Organic?
That said, most people can’t afford a 100% organic diet. So when’s it okay not to buy organic? The EWG’s “Clean Fifteen List” contains the items with the lowest levels of pesticides:
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
- Sweet Potatoes
According to The Daily Green, the government sets pesticide limits to keep your food safe – and produce in your local grocery store should meet those standards. Organizations such as the EWG don’t necessarily agree that these limits are low enough, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide who’s right. If you want to be on the safe side, you can follow the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists to have some peace of mind without going broke. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the sound of “sewage sludge,” so I’m going to try to be a bit more “organic-conscious” myself!
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