Eating organic is a challenge to everyone’s budget. With the explosion of marketing information and misinformation, you might wonder if buying organic is really necessary for wellness. Research shows that there are overwhelming benefits to selectively making the organic choice, including the following:
Less exposure to toxins.
A study of children living in Seattle found that five days of substituting organic fruits and vegetables for conventional produce effectively reduced pesticides in urine to non-detectable levels.
Higher nutrient content in meat and animal products.
A 2012 review found that organic meat and dairy both contain higher levels of all three omega-3 fats (EPA, DHA, and ALA) and more vitamin E and A than the conventional counterpart. On the other hand, produce tends to vary in terms of nutrient content.
Higher antioxidant concentration in produce and animal products.
A 2010 comparison of strawberries showed that the organic version had a much greater concentration of antioxidants and more vitamin C. Organic strawberries tended to be rated more flavorful and sweeter than conventional as well.
Support for a sustainable environment.
That 2010 strawberry analysis found that organic soil is of higher quality, more resilient to stress, and more diverse—all factors that contribute to a healthier ecosystem. By buying organic, you are supporting the infrastructure so that future generations can have access to safe, real food.
Support small farmers.
You don’t need me to tell you that buying locally grown food is the best choice for fresher, in-season food. Anyone who has bought their greens, eggs, or raw milk from the farmer knows it’s a completely different experience if you get to look the person in the eye who planted, watered, and collected the food.
Support agricultural workers’ health.
It can be eye-opening to watch an agricultural worker walk through a field with a canister of pesticide on their back spraying the crops without any protective clothing. Consider the health effects of such exposure—conventional agricultural workers have higher rates cancer and other illnesses than the general population.
No need to worry about consuming GMOs.
Organic foods cannot be genetically modified. You’ve probably heard that produce sticker codes beginning with 8 are GMO, whereas those beginning with 9 are organic. Nice idea, however, the GMO code does not get used in practice.
The Produce Marketing Association created the code starting with 8 because they figured that someday a retailer might want or have to distinguish between a GMO and non-GMO product. But, it’s not required and it hasn’t caught on.
Now let’s look at strategies for shopping organic on a budget. With the Environmental Working Group’s 2014 Guide to produce and pesticides leading the way, here are four tips for shopping healthy for a better body and earth.
#1: Invest In Organic, Pasture-Raised Meat
Organic, pastured animals are so much “cleaner” and more nutritious than conventional. Dr. Sean Lucan wrote in the in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that factory-farmed beef “comes from animals raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground-up parts of other animals.” The effect is conventional meat that has a high content of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fat from the grains the animals consume, antibiotic resistance, and a high load of growth hormones that are biologically active when ingested by humans.
In comparison, organic, pastured beef comes from animals raised on grass and other vegetation. It consistently shows a higher concentration of omega-3 fats (EPA, DHA, and ALA) compared to grain-fed animals, providing a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio between 1.4 and 2.75. Conventional grain-fed beef tends to have an omega-6 to -3 ratio between 3.5 and 13.6.
The favorable omega-3 content has been shown to improve cardiovascular health. Organic and wild meats are also packed with glutathione—an amino acid composite that is enormously effective at protecting your DNA and cells from cancer. Organic beef and ham have the highest glutathione content of all foods, surpassed only by fresh vegetables like asparagus.
Organic chicken, goat, and pork also contain more omega-3 fat, and more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a potent cancer fighter that helps regulate body weight. Organic meat also has more than two times the vitamins E and A as conventional.
#2: During Summer Always Choose Nutrient-Rich, Full-Fat Organic Dairy
A nutrient comparison of dairy products in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that organic dairy contains superior levels of all the omega-3 fats and CLA. It’s also high in vitamin K, which is fairly rare in the modern diet, but extremely important because of its role in calcium metabolism.
Organic dairy had the highest levels of these favorable nutrients during the summer months when the animals are fed outdoors with fresh forage versus indoors with “conserved forage” during winter. Still, organic dairy had so many more omega-3 fat and CLA that they are able to maintain their favorable “premium” nutritional quality year round.
Health Tip: Naturally, if you’re going to shell out the bucks to buy organic dairy, you want to opt for full-fat dairy to get the cancer-fighting, cardiovascular benefits of CLA and the omega-3s. CLA has also been shown to preserve muscle mass while losing body fat when used in conjunction with strength training.
Budget Tip: Buy organic dairy over conventional during the summer for the higher nutrition content. During the winter, it might prudent to decrease dairy intake and put that money into other organic foods.
#3: Mix & Match Produce Based on Local Options & The EWG Guide
When it comes to produce, you have more room to mix and match organic and conventional foods. Nutritional content in produce is influenced by soil quality, whether the food is native to the area it’s being grown in, and if it is in season. The priority is to choose produce that is local, ripe, and seasonal, adding organic to that list when possible.
The Environmental Working Group provides two lists as part of their guide to pesticide levels on produce: The Dirty Dozen plus Two of foods that are most contaminated by pesticides, and the Clean Fifteen that are cleanest.
Produce was tested in the way that it is typically eaten. For example, all produce was washed and in the case of a cucumber or banana, it was peeled.
The Dirty Dozen is apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes spinach, strawberries, and sweet bell peppers. The “Plus” foods, kale, collards, and summer squash, are three more that contain residues from highly toxic organophosphates that have been linked to cancer. The only change from the 2012 list is that green beans have been removed and replaced with squash because green beans are no longer being treated with toxic organophosphates.
The Clean Fifteen is made up of asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, mushrooms, onion, papaya, pineapple, frozen sweet peas, and sweet potatoes.
Budget Tip: A quick analysis of the lists shows that most of the highly contaminated foods are readily available in organic form in most grocery stores, so go ahead and make the investment. The cleanest fruits and vegetables tend to be the more exotic and expensive foods, so you’ve got no choice but to go conventional.
Also, be sure to go organic for contaminated foods that you eat regularly—if you eat collards and apples every day, pick organic and consider diversifying to include cabbage and cleaner fruits.
#4: Shop Organic For Special Populations: Kids & Pregnant Women
Pregnant women and kids should eat organic whenever possible. Although adults may generally be able to handle the toxic load from a small amount of pesticides, kids with smaller bodies can’t. For instance, a study of Mexican American children living in an agricultural region of California found that mothers who had the highest urinary pesticide levels during pregnancy had children with much higher risk of ADHD and other behavioral problems by age 5.
Scientists think pesticides affect brain development and neurological function. Other health problems in children from pesticide exposure include hyperactivity and an increased risk of eczema.
Better nutrition and antioxidant content is another reason expectant mothers and children should eat organic. Consider that although organic produce is not always more nutritious, a rigorous 2008 review from The Organic Center in Washington D.C. found that when an organic produce item was compared to a conventional produce item, the organic food was more nutritious 61 percent of the time, while the conventional food was more nutritious 37 percent of the time.
Conventional food tended to score strongly with a greater content of protein, potassium, and phosphorous, whereas organic foods tended to be higher in vitamin C, quercetin, and other potent antioxidants. Of course, this review comes from an organization with an inherent bias toward organic foods, but it used a strong analytical method.
Budget Tip: If you can’t buy all your baby food organic, avoid green beans and pears in favor of sweet potatoes, which have tested pesticide free. Ninety-two percent of baby food pears tested positive for containing pesticides, whereas green beans contained the largest variety of pesticide contamination.
Health Tip: Although only strawberries are on the Dirty Dozen list, try to buy all berries organic because analyses shows that the antioxidant content skyrockets in organic berries because in order for them to survive organically without chemical protectants, they increase their internal production of protectants or antioxidants. Organic berries provide you with more antioxidants to help you metabolize other toxins, while cutting down on your overall toxic load.