What foods must you buy organic?

man and girl farming together
March 23, 2016 (Updated: December 1, 2017)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

I’ll forever recommend that you eat organic foods and use organic products at all times, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Every year, organic products are earning more shelf space but they still lag in comparison to non-organic, GMO-laden foods and products. Sometimes you can’t buy organic—perhaps because you live on a budget or live in an area where organic selections are slim. That’s why I’d like to talk to you about which foods are important to buy organic and which foods are OK if you take the conventional route.

Organic Food Facts

Let’s confront some uncomfortable truths right up front: Organic foods can be expensive. Selection of organic items is especially sparse in rural areas, which drives up their price even more. It’s hard for fixed-income consumers to fill their shopping carts with organic foods and expect to stay within their budget. Organic foods cost more because they cost more to grow, but for reasons that you might not realize.

The term “organic” isn’t just a label, it’s an industry regulated by the USDA. And it’s regulated because a food has to clear a high bar to be labeled “organic.” Six bars, in fact:

  1. No GMOs at all. No genetic engineering involved in any step of the process.
  2. Foods can’t be grown using artificial materials such as synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and antibiotics.
  3. Plants and animals have to be farmed in a way that is sustainable and promotes nature and biodiversity within the area.
  4. Animals have to be free to roam outdoors and live a natural lifestyle. No cage raising.
  5. If a farm grows organic and non-organic foods, those foods must be kept separate.
  6. Every farm has to have an annual inspection to ensure standards are being met.

Those are high standards but there is growing evidence as to why the organic standards are that high. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a report that showed that human exposure to glyphosate—a carcinogenic chemical that is the active ingredient in Roundup weed killer products—has increased by approximately 500% from 1993 to 2016. Five hundred percent! Let that sink in. And the primary source of our exposure to glyphosate is food—all kinds of it. Glyphosate is sprayed on “Roundup Ready” crops such as GMO soy, corn, wheat and oats, which are staple ingredients of the American diet. Basically, we’ve been eating poison for 20+ years and nobody has told us.

This underscores the critical need for more and bigger organic farms. Meeting those six benchmarks to obtain an organic designation is difficult and drives up the production costs, which in turn makes it difficult to compete with the prices of mass-produced GMO non-organic foods. For example, one pound of non-organic 85/15 ground beef sells for about $4.30 at Wal-Mart while one pound of organic 85/15 ground beef sells for about $6—almost a 25% price increase.

But there is a big difference in these two packages of beef thanks to those regulatory benchmarks. One cow is likely pumped with steroids and antibiotics. One is not. One cow is largely confined to a barn, standing still and eating GMO corn (likely loaded with glyphosate). The other is free to roam outside and eat the organic grass in the pastures. The grass and clovers that cows eat are rich in omega-3s, which then moves up the food chain to you. When the animals are eating healthy, so are you.

Foods I Recommend You Only Eat Organic

That’s why in my list of foods that I strongly recommend you only eat organic, beef is a shoe-in. Others are:

  • All meat and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Soy in any form (oil, tofu, protein powder, meat substitutes, etc.)
  • Papayas
  • Squash
  • Wheat products (bread, crackers, cereal, etc.)
  • Corn and corn products
  • Rice and rice products
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Peas
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower

Foods that are OK to Eat Non-Organic

Thankfully, there are a few foods that are better protected from sprayed pesticides. So when you simply can’t get organic, these are among the safest non-organic foods in the produce section.

Pineapple, mangos, kiwi, avocados, watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew all have thick and tough exteriors that we typically don’t eat anyway. Those thick skins keep a large amount of sprayed pesticides from entering the fruit. If you buy these foods non-organic, be sure to wash their skins (even if you don’t eat them) before cutting the fruit to prevent contaminants from the exterior from coming into contact with the interior as cut through them.

Onions, asparagus and cabbage do not attract as many insects as other vegetables so therefore less pesticides are used on them. But be sure to rinse them thoroughly.

Remember, these foods are non-organic so they likely are made with GMOs. Just because they may have less exposure to pesticides, it doesn’t mean that the GMOs in the foods themselves are 100% safe. Sprayed pesticides are certainly more dangerous to your health—as far as we currently know, that is—so that’s why I always error on the side of caution when choosing between organic and non-organic.

Organic Junk Food?

Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Say you have two boxes of cookies sitting in front of you—one organic and one non-organic. Which one is healthy? Neither! If you reached for the organic box because you saw “organic” written on it, you passed the first test but failed the second—reading the nutrition label. Yes, the box of organic cookies is made with better ingredients than that plain old chocolate chip, but that still isn’t saying much. You’re still eating a ton of sugar with very few nutrients.

Same goes with organic cakes, chips, and other junk food. Organic junk food is still junk food. Keep this in mind when shopping. In most instances, processed, canned and boxed foods are not as healthy as their fresh versions. They are necessary sometimes, yes. When buying these items, make sure the front says organic AND the label indicates low levels of sugar, carbs, and sodium.

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What to Do if Organic Selection is Slim to None

Finally, I’d like to talk directly to readers who don’t have many organic options in their grocery stores. You still may have some great options to buy food that is produced in near organic conditions but without the “organic” label. You can shop online for organic items, though it’s likely that you’d be limited to non-perishable foods and products.

As I said earlier, it’s an expensive process for a farm to be certified organic (and continually recertified). The inspections alone can cost anywhere between the thousands to tens of thousands. A lot of farmers still raise animals and grow produce organically but don’t play the expensive regulatory game.

How do you find these farmers? Get online. Find phone numbers and websites of local farms. Look for farmers markets in your community. You can ask the farmers themselves about their farming practices. Ask if their beef is corn or grass fed, and if that corn or grass is organic. Ask if animals are free-range. Ask if they use pesticides (big red flag). Farmers are usually glad to talk about this because it’s their livelihood and they take great pride in it. The end result is that you can find a lot of food that is organic in substance but not on the label.

GMOs are a controversial subject, so make sure you find a farmer that treats them the way you’d like them to be treated.

Bear in mind, some foods—like soybeans—are virtually impossible to get as a non-GMO. Consequently, a farm that grows soy and doesn’t have stringent boundaries won’t get the organic label.

That might bother you, or it might not.

Finally, ask a farmer why they didn’t get certified. You’ll find a large number are unable or unwilling to jump through the bureaucratic red tape, or undergo annual inspections.

If you get to know and trust a farmer, that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. If you want to check up on the farm, many farmers are happy to give you a tour of their land.

Community-Supported Agriculture

A new trend has been emerging where the farmers sell directly to consumers without the added costs of the middleman. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a system by which consumers “subscribe” to the harvests of local farms. For example, you pay an annual or monthly fee, and your food is ready for pick up at a designated day/location each week. If you are lucky, some farms will deliver the food to your door! CSAs are great because you buy directly from the farm, which even if they are labeled organic, you don’t pay for the markup that the middleman would add on to it.

Best of all, CSAs are available in urban and rural markets. Check out www.localharvest.com, which has a searchable directory of CSAs by zip code. You can find if there is a CSA near you and pick which farm (or farms) you’d like to subscribe to. Usually, the CSA season lasts from late spring to autumn—about 20-25 weeks of food deliveries each week. A warning about CSAs: Most farms will give you A LOT of food, and a lot of the same vegetable in one week’s batch. For example, plan to eat a whole bunch of squash, carrots and beets in the fall. Talk to farmers in CSAs about which foods will be in the next week’s deliveries so you can plan your meals in advance.

Organic Food for Thought

Organic food is often higher in nutrients and devoid of added GMOs and chemicals. You can also be sure that you’re not supporting unsustainable (and sometimes immoral) factory farming when you eat organic foods.

What it comes down to is this: You have to be smart about what you eat. So simple, yet so important. Depending on your access to organic foods, some trade-offs have to be made. But that doesn’t mean you should stop looking and asking. After all, the organic food revolution (like everything in our economy) was born out of demand, not supply.

I have no doubt that more research is going to show that GMOs are more widespread and more harmful than previously believed. As a result, farmers are growing more and stores are stocking more. Your voice—and your wallet—can make a difference.

References

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