Unlike food labels such as "natural" and "free range," use of the word "organic" is strictly regulated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies products as organic if they meet a set of standards, including, but not limited to, using 100 percent organic feed for animals and zero use of synthetic fertilizers, certain pesticides, and genetically modified organisms for fruits and vegetables. Organic proponents generally tout benefits such as higher nutritional value and better taste; less contamination from toxins, chemicals, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and less damage to the environment. These claims are hard to verify and are subject to much debate. One factor about which there is no doubt: Organic products typically cost more. Is organic worth it?
When Is It Worth Buying Organic?
The Environmental Working Group lists a "Dirty Dozen" of fruits and vegetables for which organic really matters in terms of pesticide exposure. Apples are usually named as the No. 1 food to buy organic, followed by peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, and potatoes. These 12 fruits and vegetables test consistently -- and alarmingly -- high for pesticide residue. If you want to only buy a few organic items, choose from this list. The "Clean Fifteen," on the other hand, are fruits and vegetables that test lowest for pesticide residue, and include avocados, onions, pineapples, eggplant, grapefruit, mangos, and sweet potatoes. There's little benefit to spending more on organic versions of these.
The organic label on baby food matters because the condensed ingredients can mean higher concentrations of pesticide residue. Organic farming reduces those risks significantly. Earth's Best, Gerber's Organics, and Plum Organics are three moderately priced brands; stock up during sales to stretch the food budget. Alternatively, use a blender or food processor to make DIY baby food with organic ingredients. Organic produce is available at many farmers markets and increasingly at local supermarkets, big-box stores, and discount clubs.
Growing olives doesn't require many synthetic inputs (chemicals, pesticides), so buying organic olive oil doesn't make financial sense. Moreover, the organic version is far more expensive than regular (e.g., a 25.5-ounce bottle of the Walmart store brand is 28 cents cheaper than 17 ounces of Filippo Berio organic olive oil) and any health or safety benefits are unproven.
Rodale's Organic Life lists bread and cereal among the processed foods to always buy organic -- and for good reason. Grains attract a lot of insects, so millers regularly use pesticides, which leave residues in the finished product. And conventional cereals often contain genetically modified organisms. In general, organic breads and cereals contain fewer chemicals and preservatives.
Sugar maples grow well on their own, almost always in forests, without help from pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The production process is just as basic: Farmers tap the trees, collect the xylem sap, boil it, and bottle it. Although you can't be 100 percent sure without the organic label, chances are very high that a non-organic buy is pure.
Non-organic coffee beans are washed in chemicals, such as ammonia, that you probably don't want to consume. And the crop is grown using ample pesticides. Figure on paying about $3 more for a pound of organic coffee, but it's probably worth the tab.
Many health professionals recommend choosing organic meat products whenever possible despite the extra cost. The primary concern about conventional meats is antibiotic use in livestock, which some research has linked to the development of drug-resistant bacteria in humans. Moreover, organic meat comes from animals that have been fed diets free of pesticides, fertilizers, and animal by-products.
American consumers have gone quinoa crazy in recent years. The grain crop is highly nutritious, gluten-free, and a complete protein. There's no need to buy organic quinoa because farmers don't use pesticides to grow it. Quinoa plants naturally produce saponins, which help defend against pests. They also leave a bitter coating on the seeds, so be sure to rinse before cooking. Save your pennies for other products that are best in their organic state.
The anatomy of the peanut is what makes organic peanut butter a worthy buy even though the cost is about double the regular variety. Peanut shells are permeable and peanuts grow underground, absorbing pesticides and chemical fertilizers from the soil. The nuts, due to their high fat content, retain these inputs. The USDA has found pesticide residue in traditional peanut butters.
Pesticides are commonly used when growing corn, and residue remains on the kernels. The microwave variety piles on with preservatives as well as chemicals used to coat the bag. Instead, opt for packs of organic microwave popcorn despite the substantial price difference: at least 30 cents an ounce for a variety of Newman's Own Organics compared with less than 18 cents an ounce for Orville Redenbacher's. Cheaper (and safer) still, buy organic kernels and pop them yourself; scoop into a brown paper bag and microwave until they stop popping.