Also, remember that an organic label doesn’t automatically make a food healthier.
“When we choose organic foods we are lowering the amount of pesticides and chemicals that could potentially be getting into our food supply,” Lori Zanini, R.D., spokesperson for the Association of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF. Buying organic is good for our planet, and organic foods are often fresher because they do not contain any preservatives (so they can’t sit around on store shelves for weeks at a time). But it’s a common misconception that “organic” always means “healthy.”
Most evidence shows that organic versions of healthy foods probably aren’t any more nutritious than non-organic, though the answer isn’t 100 percent clear. Some research suggests pesticide residue may be more harmful at lower levels than we think, but again, more studies need to be done (many of them are still only animal studies). According to the Mayo Clinic, organic regulations ban or severely restrict the use of food additives, processing aids, and fortifying agents like preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings, and flavorings. This may make them healthier in certain ways, but an organic orange isn’t going to pack more vitamin C than a regular one. When it comes to snacks like cookies and crackers, junk food is junk food, whether the flour and sugar is organically sourced or not.
While choosing organic foods over non-organic is a good idea when you can, it’s not the end of the world if you have to pick and choose only a few foods to buy with the label.
“If you can't afford to buy organic, I would simply focus on choosing organic when it comes to the ‘Dirty Dozen,’” Zanini says. The “Dirty Dozen” is a list the Environmental Working Group puts out indicating which items in the produce aisle tend to have the highest concentrations of pesticide residues. Although the government does regulate non-organic produce to make sure the residues we consume are below a safe threshold, not every piece of fruit in every store gets tested (and imported produce adds another level on uncertainty). So each year, the EWG looks at the USDA and FDA's sampling data for the most popular fruits and veggies and calls out the ones with the highest pesticide levels. The list is new every year, but the same things tend to keep cropping up.
One thing most of these fruits and veggies have in common: They have thin skin that we eat, which means we’re eating whatever’s on it, too. “If it is not a type of fruit/vegetable that you will eat the skin, then there is no need to buy organic,” Zanini says. Pesticides are much less likely to get through a tough skin barrier, so the part you eat is better protected. Examples include avocado, banana, and cantaloupe.
Here are the “Dirty Dozen” that you should try to buy organic if you can:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
EWG also gives a special shout out to leafy greens and hot peppers — they don’t meet the qualifications for Dirty Dozen inclusion, but the pesticides found on them are particularly concerning. The organization suggests buying them organic if you eat a lot of them, or eating them cooked instead of raw.
All things considered, you should never let your inability to buy organic stop you from eating fruits and veggies entirely.
When considering your health, buying organic isn’t more important than eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies. “I say this because sometimes I hear clients say they aren’t going to eat fruits and veggies unless they are organic. Don’t be misled, the benefits of eating fruits and veggies still outweigh potential downfalls of eating commercial or non-organic food.”
More From SELF: