Organic vs. Non-organic? Knowing When to Choose

Danielle Omar, MS, RD Calcium and Bone Health Leave a Comment

Image by Eugene Kim

Image by Eugene Kim

Are you feeling the pressure to eat organic food, all the time? As the natural food section in the grocery store continues to become more popular, you may be asking yourself is it really worth it?

What does organic mean?

Organic food is grown without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Yup, the basil and mint you have growing on your windowsill qualifies.

This doesn’t mean organic food doesn’t use fertilizer or pesticides––it just doesn’t use certain kinds. Produce can be called organic if it’s been certified (by the USDA) to have grown on soil that contains none of the prohibited substances for three years prior to harvest. This would include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, for example.

Meat and poultry can be certified organic if the animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), if they’re fed 100% organic feed and forage, and if they’re not administered antibiotics or hormones.

Packaged products can be called organic if they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products.

As with all organic foods, none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organism (GMOs), which the organic standards prohibit.

When to Buy Organic

This extra attention to how your food is grown often means organic food can cost more than its conventional counterpart. The good news is you don’t have to eat 100% organic all the time in order to eat healthy. Not all conventionally grown food is unsafe to eat, so focusing on a few key organic foods is a good place to start. I have three basic rules that guide me when I’m shopping for organic food.

  • If the food has inedible skin, don’t go organic. Example: bananas, avocado
  • If the food has skin you can peel away, don’t go organic. Example: sweet potatoes, cucumbers
  • If you eat the food often, like several times per week, go organic. Because you’re eating these foods so often, going organic here will decrease your long-term exposure to the chemical residue you’re trying to avoid.

Many people think it’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget, but it’s simply not true. Eating organic on a budget does take some planning, but it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. (Check out my post about how I eat clean on a budget.)

One of my best tips for buying organic food on a budget is to prioritize your organic purchases. If you’re willing to do some meal planning, there are plenty of opportunities to stretch your shopping budget.

The best place to start is to educate yourself. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies that protect global and individual health, comes out with a list of foods that have the most and the least pesticide residues. Getting to know which foods are safe to buy conventionally will save you time and money when grocery shopping.

  • 2016 Dirty Dozen:
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Celery
  • Grapes
  • Cherries
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • 2016 Clean Fifteen:
  • Avocado
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Papayas
  • Kiwi
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew melon
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
If you eat any of the foods on the Dirty Dozen list everyday or even a few times per week, it’s best to invest in organic versions of those foods. The foods on the Clean Fifteen list are foods you can feel good about buying conventional.

Tips for Buying Organic on a Budget

  • Shop around. Don’t just assume organic food is more expensive. Compare prices! Some stores carry their own brand of organics that are the same price or less than name brand conventional counterparts.
  • Shop local and seasonally. Local, in-season produce is usually less expensive, and that goes for organic produce, too! Purchase a crop share or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to get local, in-season produce for less. Visit Local Harvest to find a crop share near you.
  • Do some research first. When buying meat, poultry, milk and dairy, do some digging. Some farms aren’t certified organic, but utilize organic farming and animal welfare practices. Some standards to consider when buying non-organic brands are hormone use for beef and lamb, whether animal byproducts are allowed in feed, the use of gestation crates, cages or tethers, and whether cattle, bison, sheep and goats are allowed to spend time on pasture versus a feedlot.
  • Use your freezer. Frozen organic meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit are cheaper than fresh (especially if the produce is out of season). Buy organic meat and poultry when on sale or in bulk, and freeze for later. Local in-season produce can be frozen as well.
  • Grow your own. Growing your own food is one of the best ways to eat organic on the cheap. Even if you don’t have a yard you can utilize these creative options for gardening in small spaces.

I hope you learned some useful tips on how to be healthy while on a budget when it comes to purchasing organic foods. Is there anything on here you didn’t know about?