You’ve probably heard that buying organic is better for your health and for the environment. Generally, both of these statements are probably true. USDA-certified organic foods are grown free of pesticides, hormones, and other substances and farming practices that may harm your health – while also polluting the world we live in. However, organic foods are also usually sold at a hefty premium to their “regular” counterparts, and certain foods don’t necessarily need to be purchased organic because they carry little risk of contamination. Use this guide to determine which foods you should buy organic, if possible, and which ones are safe to buy “regular.”
Animal products – This category includes both meat and dairy. Unlike animals used to produce organic meat and dairy, non-organic meat and dairy animals are commonly fed growth hormones and are administered antibiotics to protect their meat, milk and eggs from infection caused by the animals’ crowded, squalid living conditions. In addition to the potential risks of consuming animal products laden with antibiotics and hormones, there are also concerns that the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming may lead to drug-resistant bacteria strains, such as the mad cow disease outbreak of the 1990s. It’s best to protect yourself from these risks by buying organic meat (including chicken), milk and eggs.
Peppers, celery, potatoes and leafy greens – These vegetables have tested especially high for pesticide residues in government tests. USDA tests found over 60 kinds of pesticides on non-organic, U.S.-grown celery harvested in 2010, close to 50 different pesticides on sweet bell peppers, and over 30 pesticides on potatoes (not including sweet potatoes, which are on the “safe” list). Besides just sweet bell peppers, peppers in general are prone to higher pesticide contamination levels as they readily absorb pesticides through their skin. Green, leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, kale and collard greens also commonly contain high levels of pesticide residues, as farmers regularly douse the leaves of these crops with potent pesticides to keep the pests at bay.
Apples, peaches, nectarines, grapes and berries –Tree fruits like apples, peaches, cherries and nectarines often have high levels of pesticide contamination as these fruits have thin, absorbent skins that do little to them from the various chemicals that farmers spray orchards with to ward off fungus and insect threats. Ground-grown fruits like grapes and berries also commonly contain high levels of pesticides – the USDA has identified close to 60 different pesticides on strawberries alone. Remember that products made with grapes, such as raisins, grape juice and wine (more on wine below) may also contain pesticide residues and should be purchased organic when feasible.
Baby food – Because it is made of condensed foods, baby food will contain intensified levels of any toxin found in the produce or animals used to make it. Moreover, infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals due to their small body size. Toxin exposure during certain stages of a child’s development may also cause brain damage and other developmental problems. For these reasons, it is also a good idea to eat organic when you are pregnant to minimize your baby’s exposure to harmful chemicals in the womb.
Coffee, chocolate and wine – Some of the foods that contain the most pesticides are also some of the most addictive. Coffee beans, for example, are often imported from countries with lax laws on pesticide use, so buying organic coffee is pretty important – especially if you drink it every day. Most organic coffee also carries a “Fair Trade Practices” label, which means that the people who grew the beans were paid and treated fairly. The above statements also apply to chocolate, whose raw ingredients (cocoa beans) are also grown in countries with less-stringent pesticide and labor regulations than the U.S. Lastly, if you drink wine, buying organic will help protect you from the many pesticides used on grape crops. Note that the label of some wines will say “Made with organic grapes” rather than declaring the entire product certified organic, as sulfites are often added to otherwise organic wines for preservation purposes.
Carrots and cauliflower, and out-of-season fruit – Cauliflower and carrots have so-so rankings when it comes to pesticide residue levels, so whether or not you buy these items organic may depend on how often you eat them or how careful you are about pesticide exposure. Like coffee and cocoa beans, out-of-season fruit is often (though not always) grown in places outside the U.S. that do not have stringent pesticide regulations.
It is generally safe to consume the non-organic versions of the above fruits and veggies because they are protected from pesticide exposure, thanks to either their thick peel or by the lack of pesticides used to grow them.
Although it won’t necessarily benefit your health, there is an argument to be made for buying everything organic. Buying organic supports local farmers, sustainable farming practices, and animal welfare. Many people also prefer the taste of organic produce to that of non-organic fruits and vegetables.
And yet another thing to consider is that even non-organic foods are regulated by the USDA for safety, and contain chemical levels that the government agency deems safe for human consumption. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of pesticide exposure are not fully known, and as mentioned above, even small amounts of toxins can be dangerous for babies and pregnant women. When it comes to vitamin and mineral content, the jury is still out on whether organic food is more nutritious. Finally, consider that the health advantages of eating more fruits and vegetables in general, even if the produce isn’t grown with organic practices, are likely greater than the harm caused by trace pesticide exposure.