Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What's the Deal with Organics?

This is one of the first posts that I began writing back when I initially started Veggie Terrain. At that time, I was just beginning to fully appreciate the importance of "organics," but was also aware of many of the questions and much of the confusion surrounding organic food. As a result, I began writing this comprehensive article, which I'm finally posting - just in time for summer's abundance of fresh, organic fruit and produce!
image borrowed from

There's been a lot of talk about buying organic over the past few months. People seem to be going crazy for Whole Foods, and there's lots of whispering about people incorporating "organics" into their "green lifestyles."

But what exactly does "organic" mean, and what are the benefits of going organic? Furthermore, when is it important to spend the extra money on organic produce, and when is it okay to skip organics all together?

Well, if you've been wondering about any of these issues, you're in luck! Read on to find the answers to these, and many more questions, below.

Organic: The Definition

Initially, there was a lot of confusion about what it meant for a fruit or vegetable to be called "organic." However, what appeared to be the case at first - and is indeed true - is that buying organic is both better for the environment and better for you.*

But before we get into the benefits of organics, let's start by discussing the basics...

The bottom line is: if a product bears a "USDA organic" label, you are guaranteed that it's at least 95%-free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and sewage sludge. (Appetizing, isn't it?)

Furthermore, no use of antibiotics, hormones, or genetic modification is permitted with regard to such products.

Two other labels/definitions that you might see while shopping are:
  • 100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
    • Note: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
Now that we have our definition out of the way, let's take a look at some of the reasons that organic produce is preferable over non-organics.

Benefits of Organics

Both your personal health, and the health of our environment can benefit from the use of organic foods and products.

For example, research regarding the increase of nutrients in organically-grown (as opposed to non-organic) fruits and vegetables is continuing to manifest itself. Likewise, organic farming has a far less negative impact on the environment than non-organic farming methods do.

  • Research shows that organic farms do not consume/release synthetic pesticides into the environment - some of which have the potential to harm soil, water, and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
  • Feeding the soil with organic matter instead of ammonia and other synthetic fertilizers has proven to increase nutrients in produce. This results in higher levels of vitamins and minerals found in organic food, according to the 2005 study, “Elevating Antioxidant Levels in Food through Organic Farming and Food Processing,” published by the Organic Center's State of Science Review.
  • When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste (ex: packaging materials for chemicals).
  • New research verifies that some organic produce is often lower in nitrates and higher in antioxidants than conventional food.
If you'd like more information about the differences between organically-grown and non-organically grown produce, consider picking up Michael Pollen's "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," which addresses this topic in part. Alternatively, please feel free to explore the links that are woven throughout this article, as well as those at the bottom of this post.

When to Buy OrganicUnfortunately, organic produce is often more expensive than non-organic produce. As a result, adding organic foods to your grocery list - especially at regular grocery stores - can get expensive. Thus, figuring out when it's necessary to go organic, and when it's okay to skip it, is an important decision.

Of course, many people would argue that "all organic" is the only way to go, but since most of us don't have money trees growing in our pesticide-free gardens, that's not very helpful advice...

One common suggestion is to always buy organic when it comes to the fruits and veggies that you use most often. For example, if you're an-apple-a-day kind of a person (which I happen to be), it's best to shell out a little extra for organic apples.

On the other hand, if you rarely eat celery, then it's probably okay to buy it as non-organic produce on the rare occasions that you do purchase it. The theory behind this idea is that by purchasing organic versions of your most commonly consumed foods, you'll be exposed to less chemicals on a regular basis.

Another suggestion is to reference the "Dirty Dozen" fruit/veggie list when shopping, which was created by the Environmental Working Group - a non-profit organization that focuses on public health and the environment. It lists the 12 "dirtiest" and "cleanest" fruits and vegetables, based on the EWG's exhaustive research into the amount of pesticides that each crop is exposed to.

image borrowed from

According to the EWG, the Dirty Dozen include the following foods, which should be purchased organic*:
  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Kale
  9. Lettuce
  10. Grapes (imported)
  11. Carrots
  12. Pears
*Note: This information is the most current available. It was updated on 3.11.09, as I received a newer version of both the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 lists from the EWG.

On the other hand, the EWG has determined that the following 15 foods are exposed to the fewest pesticides, and are therefore the "cleanest" and may be purchased non-organic:
  1. Onions
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Asparagus
  7. Sweet Peas
  8. Kiwi
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Papaya
  12. Watermelon
  13. Broccoli
  14. Tomato
  15. Sweet Potatoes
Please click here for a printable version of this list. It's excellent for carrying in your purse/wallet or putting on your fridge as a reference.

In addition, click here to view a more detailed list of the 43 fruits and vegetables that were researched by EWG.

Tips for Saving on OrganicsA great option when it comes to organics is to sign up for a membership with a local farm, which can deliver organic food right to your doorstep! This can easily be done through "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA) programs.

CSAs allow individuals to pay monthly or yearly fees in order to receive boxes of organically produced food, which come directly from a local farm. While some programs allow consumers to select the foods they wish to receive, while others simply deliver whatever produce is the freshest and most abundant that month.

For more information about these fantastic programs, please visit this website. Keep in mind that taking part in a CSA allows you to build a relationship with your local farmers, to eat both locally and organically, and to encourage and support sustainable, healthy agricultural practices. Receiving a box of random produce each week or month will make you a better cook, as well!

If the CSA program doesn't work for you, or if you're looking for other ways to save money, check out the following strategies, which have been taken from
  • Comparison Shop. You may be able to find less-expensive alternatives at different stores. Many major chains are coming out with their own organic brands, such as O Organics™ at Safeway or Dominicks, and ShopRite Organics at ShopRite.
  • Cook More. The more convenient the food is, the more expensive it is. For example, buying an organic frozen dinner may save you time in the same way a conventional frozen dinner would, but it costs quite a bit more than its non-organic counterpart and much more than a homemade meal. Buy organic items that are lower in price (such as produce), and make your own dishes from scratch.
  • Stock Up. Stock up on your favorite items when they go on sale. Or try something new that is on sale or is priced well, and you may find a new favorite!
  • Buy in Bulk. Buying in bulk will keep costs down. Look for many pantry staples often available in bulk, such as beans, legumes, rice, flour, nuts, chocolate chips, and much more. Many local co-ops have extensive organic bulk sections.
  • Shop in Season. Shop farm stands and farmers’ markets for the freshest, most-delicious produce while supporting local farmers. Purchasing in season produce from your grocer may also keep costs down.
And, for your convenience:
  • Click for a comprehensive list of farmers' markets in the Chicago-area, based on markets available each day of the week
  • Or, click for an interactive listing of farmers' markets in the U.S., listed by state
Interested in my sources? Want more information? Fee free to check out the links below:
  • Get educated!
  • Read more about EWG's "Dirty Dozen"
  • Find out what's going on with organics in your state (click on the drop-down menu on the left-hand side of the page)
  • Peruse more research about organic nutrition
*The USDA disputes claims that organic produce is better than "conventionally-grown" produce. Without sparking a big debate here, just keep in mind that this is a governmental agency that provides federal subsidies to non-organic farms. Not exactly an unbiased opinion, huh?

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  1. The Dirty Dozen list is so handy, I have it programmed into my cell phone for quick reference.

    BTW, I love your educational posts. You have a way of making them very educational AND interesting!

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I always learn something new about organics. =)

  3. the list is a keeper. nice and informative post.

  4. FABULOUS post!! I presented a speech on this very topic, at my university :0)

  5. Thank you so much for posting your informative article. You managed to cover a huge topic in a very organized and easy-to-read manner! I am going to print that Dirty Dozen list out and carry with me when I grocery shop.

    And yes, it really was 95 degrees in Portland! Goodness, and now it is like 60 degrees. Sigh...

  6. Wow, this is a well-thought-out and extremely informative article. Thanks so much for taking the time to write it. There’s so much information out there regarding organics that your concise article is a great resource.

    P.S. I’m adding your terrific site to my blogroll.

  7. This is a great post!! My dad always teases me (he is an organic chemist) and says that all produce is "organic". I should forward this to him. Anyways, very useful information. Thanks so much for posting!

  8. what an awesome post this is! you should be linked to everywhere!

  9. Thia is a great post. I have been trying to do one like this myself but I just haven't had the time! Thank you for doing it!

  10. Thank you for all of this information...especially the list of which foods are the "dirtiest" and which are the "cleanest".

  11. NPR did a story on organic foods and a farmer called in and told the truth about FDA approving organic or not. The real story is that an FDA agent goes to a farm and checks the receipts and if there are no purchases on said receipts that the farmer shows this FDA agent, then this farmer is organic. so pretty much, any farmer who is sneaky can be deemed organic USDA but still use pesticides.

  12. Great post! Very informative!

  13. ferry interesting! I only started buying organic options [mostly from the 10 most needed ones list] recently, and while it's sometimes a struggle to find affordable options, I wouldn't have it any other way anymore.

  14. really informative post. Here~here about the expense of buying organic. I try to buy a portion of organic that I find affordable. Locally hard to find farm fresh as well, otherwise that would be other option to support local farmers. Organic makes a huge difference tho to the bod and palate.

    Thanks for the great post!

  15. Thank you so much for your kind comment on my cupcake post. You're such a sweetie :o).

  16. Well done - I love your educational posts, too!

    I knew the "dirty dozen," but I didn't know about the "safe(r)" foods. Thanks!

  17. This is soo helpful;-)

  18. FANTASTIC Post. I have printed out the list. It is so handy and your research into this is excellent. Thanks so much.

  19. Actually, some "organic" farmer do use pesticides/herbicides. Furthermore the regulations and laws to labeling foods organic hasn't been set in stone; there's changes in the laws and regulations every year to help protect consumers and farmers. Basically it's a work in progress.

  20. Thanks so much for providing your audience with so much good information about organic. If you and/or your readers are interested in learning more about organic, visit, where you can find not only a clear answer to the question "What is organic," but also lots of information of the many benefits organic has to offer.

    As you and your readers think about these benefits, please also consider this: buying organic is about more than keeping pesticides out of our bodies. It is about supporting a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility through the use of such methods as crop rotation and cover cropping, which nourish plants, foster species diversity, help combat climate change, prevent damage to valuable water resources, and protect farmers and farmers’ families from exposure to harmful chemicals.

    Do we still have to make choices about whether to buy organic? Absolutely. But in making this choice, we should think less about crossing certain organic items off our shopping lists and more about how we can achieve positive personal, social and environmental change through the organic purchases we choose to make.


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