Organic labels aren’t limited to just produce anymore. Even the budget grocery stores and big box stores are carrying options like organic cookies, organic cereal, organic soups, organic potato chips and more. With all these options, shouldn't you always buy organic when you can? Not necessarily.
The bottom line when it comes to packaged organic products, is that an organic cookie is still a cookie, chips are still chips, and high sodium organic soups and frozen dinners are still high in sodium. Each of these foods are still highly processed and probably have a paragraph’s worth of ingredients. A common assumption is that just because a product has an organic label, it is automatically "healthy." Having an organic label on a package does not mean these products have any less calories or more nutrients than their conventional produced counterparts. If you’re buying packaged foods, the most important thing is not to make sure it’s organic, but to look at the ingredients label and ask yourself three questions:
1. Are there any ingredients I can’t pronounce?
2. Does it take me longer than 10 seconds to read through all of the ingredients?
3. Are sugar or one of it’s derivatives (corn syrup, cane syrup, brown rice syrup, maltodextrin, fruit juice concentrates, dehydrated cane juice, sucrose or anything else ending in -ose) one of the top three ingredients?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, put it back on the shelf, whether it’s labeled organic or not.
Why is buying organic so much more expensive? Organic foods typically cost 10-40% more than similar conventionally grown products. To obtain a USDA certified organic label (which guarantees the product contains at least 95% organic ingredients), farmers must meet stricter quality standards. They use natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost instead of chemicals and use crop rotations to conserve the nutrients in soil. Organic farming aims to reduce pollution and conserve resources. More labor is required, which brings up the cost for the farmer and brings up the cost of the product for you.
The best and cheapest way to buy produce is still from a Farmer’s Market, where the produce may not carry any USDA labels saying it’s organic, but it is organic in every sense except for the name. Small farmers can’t afford to attain pricy labels, yet most of them are already farming using organic standards. Ask the farmer where the food was grown and if any pesticides were used.
The jury is still out on whether organic produce has a higher nutrient content than conventional. Research findings differ because foods grown in healthier organic soils are likely to taste better and have more nutrients initially, however most organic produce is shipped from far across the country or even overseas to your local grocer which causes it’s nutrients to diminish, possibly cancelling out the benefit of being organic in the first place. That is why it’s important to look for produce grown locally AND by organic standards (cough, cough– Farmer’s Market).
Pick your battles. If you have a choice between eating non-organic, non-local fruits or vegetables or no fruits and vegetables at all, please EAT the fruits and vegetables. The benefits of eating produce far outweigh the risks of potential pesticide exposure. The Environmental Working Group has come up with a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue, which changes year to year. You may have previously heard of the Dirty Dozen, but in 2013 the EWG expanded the list to the Dirty Dozen Plus. When possible, buy these foods in the organic version:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot Peppers
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Imported nectarines
- Collard Greens
- Summer Squash
The EWG also have a Clean Fifteen list, showcasing fruits and veggies with the lowest pesticide levels.
My last tip on buying organic is to not forget your freezer. Organic frozen produce is often cheaper than fresh, especially if the fruit or vegetable is out of season. Most frozen produce is frozen when the fruit or vegetable is at its peak ripeness, so don’t worry about it containing less nutrients than the fresh version. Just make sure there aren’t any added ingredients. The ingredient label should read: organic _____ (raspberries, edamame, lima beans, etc.) and that’s it!
Another option is to grow your own produce at home. Even if you only have a small balcony or window sill space, you can still grow your own herbs like basil, cilantro and parsley. The more you know about where your food comes from, the healthier you will be.
About the author: Megan Ware is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Awareness, based out of Dallas, TX. She specializes in weight loss and has recently partnered with Fitness with Insight to offer their clients a whole-body approach to getting fit and healthy.