In a perfect world, fruit & vegetables would be grown organically, animals would be pastured and treated well, and no food would be contaminated with harmful chemicals, antibiotics, or synthetic hormones. Perhaps some day…
But for now, conventional still outgrows organic, and organic is 25-100% more expensive than non-organic, which is the number one reason for many to drive their shopping cart right past the organic aisle at the supermarket.
As much as I’m convinced about the many benefits of buying organic, I totally understand that people struggle to pay the extra price. The good news is that some conventional foods are about as good as their organic counterparts, such as certain fruit & veggies, wild fish, quinoa, or maple syrup. But reality shows us there are quite a few that are much safer when bought organic.
Below I briefly explain the relevance of buying organic for some important food categories.
Organic versus non-organic – An overview per category
1. Fruit & vegetables
Each year the Environmental Working Group releases an updated list of fruit and vegetables that are either safe to eat because hardly sprayed (“The clean 15”), or highly contaminated (“The Dirty Dozen”). Check their website for the most up-to-date information.
This list is super helpful when buying fruit & veggies and I always carry it with me on my phone.
Dirty dozen (to buy organic as often as possible!):
- Bell peppers
Clean fifteen (ok to buy non-organic):
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Honeydew melon
2. Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy
Most conventionally farmed animals eat an unnatural diet containing:
- Grains, corn, or soy (often GMO)
- Antibiotics (to prevent disease)
- Synthetic hormones (to speed growth)
Residues of these chemicals are stored in the animals’ body fat, and present in their milk or eggs.
Dairy cows are fed even more growth hormones and antibiotics than cows raised for meat. These chemicals make it into their milk, and the higher fat the milk, yoghurt, butter or cheese, the more chemicals, which is one of the reasons I highly recommend buying organic milk for children who tend to consume whole milk products daily. Also, butter should be bought organic as it contains the highest concentration of pesticides of all food items.
Organic animal products, on the other hand, are free of GMO’s, pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones, and contain more nutrients thanks to the animal’s natural diet. Grass-fed cows, for instance, are very rich in omega-3 and linoleic acid (CLA), both super healthy fatty acids with proven benefits in terms of heart health, cancer prevention, and weight management.
There’s much debate about the term “organic fish” and many distinctions need to be made when recommending wild or organic. But I’ll keep it to the essence in this post.
I strongly recommend avoiding conventionally farmed fish because they’re being fed hormones, antibiotics, GMO and pesticides, and live in dreadful conditions.
So, should you buy organic or wild fish? USDA still doesn’t certify organic fish farming which means you’re never 100% sure about the conditions in which the fish was farmed. So if you live in the US or buy fish from the US, wild fish is often the best option. However, opt for smaller fish like sardines, herring, and anchovies over larger species like swordfish, tuna, or shark to minimise your exposure to mercury. Also look for sustainable fish indicated with the blue MSC label.
In the European Union, on the other hand, organic aquaculture is certified and European organic farms are producing half of the organic fish worldwide. However, if you live in Europe you should still prefer MSC labelled wild fish over organic fish because some recent reports have indicated even some organically farmed fish contained some harmful substances.
It’s also good to know that wild-caught fish are raised in captivity and then released, which doesn’t make them as wild as most people think.
4. Ready-made meals and snacks
Although I’m a true advocate of homemade and whole foods, I know life can get so busy that opening a can of ravioli is sometimes the only way to avoid a nervous breakdown. It happens to me too and I always have a small stock of S.O.S. solutions for those nights. But my golden rule is to buy these convenience foods from organic shops or health food stores only. Not so much because they’re free of pesticides, but mostly because they’re free of E-numbers, white sugar, excess salt, and unpronounceable ingredients. However, not all organic products are healthy, so scan the labels first!
I always recommend buying organic tea because while your tea infuses, pesticides leak into the water.
If you want to read more, make sure to read “Why you should buy organic”.