One of the biggest complaints I hear from people who are trying to eat healthier is that organic foods is expensive. Well, they’re right. Organic food is more expensive than regular food. For proof of that, see this University of Texas food science article.
There are a number of reasons for this:
- Organic foods come with higher labor costs.
- Organic farmland only accounts for about 1% of farmland worldwide.
- Organic certification costs dolla dolla bill, ya’ll. It’s not easy or cheap to get the organic stamp of approval. Costs range from $400 to over $2,000 for this.
- Organic farms are not usually able to produce as much volume as regular farms because of crop rotation. Most organic farmers use cover crops to improve nitrogen retention in the soil after their main crop has been produced. This makes the soil more nutritious for future products, but it also limits how much can be grown.
- Government subsidies reduce the cost of crops. A few years ago, conventional farm subsidies added up to about $7.5 billion, while organic farms received only $15 million.
But there’s no need to worry about this as much as you might have been worrying about it. If you’re trying to eat healthier or paleo, there’s no need to buy all of your food organic. This article explains what you should buy organic, what you shouldn’t buy organic, and how to save yourself some cash when paleofying your nutrition.
Table of Contents
What Is Organic?
Organic means no synthetic fertilizers, no pesticides, and no sewage sludge.
- No antibiotics are given to the animals unless they are sick.
- No hormones are given to the animals.
- No genetically modified organisms are used.
- No irradiation is used during the processing stages.
- The food is not contaminated during the processing stages.
- Animals are given 100% organic feed.
- The farming and food processing plants keep detailed records of what is happening and when.
- Farmers must keep detailed records for a specified period of time that describe all the production and handling of food carried out.
- Farms must have buffer zones surrounding crops, so that any prohibited substances used nearby do not contaminate organic crops, soil, or water.
- Organic seeds must be used, when available.
- Farmers must feed any animals with organic feed for a minimum of one year.
- Farmers must provide any animals with access to the outdoors.
- Farmers must submit regular audits to organic certification authorities.
- Farmers must implement crop rotation.
- Farmers must make efforts to minimize soil erosion.
- Farmers must use natural fertilizer to increase soil quality.
Organic farmers and production plants must not:
- Use any growth hormones, antibiotics, or food made from animal byproducts to nourish farm animals or products.
- Use irradiation or any genetic engineering.
That said, there are different levels of organic. It’s not black and white.
- 95 to 100% organic – 95-100% of the products’ ingredients are organic.
- 79 to 95% organic – Up to 30% of the ingredients are non-organic.
- Less than 70% organic – This is the most mind-boggling classification of them all. A company can use more than 30% non-organic ingredients and, as long as the product label lists the non-organic ingredients the food contains, they can still call it organic.
The organic classification doesn’t automatically make a food healthy. There are organic Pop-Tarts and gummy worms, for Pete’s sake.
How Does Organic Farming Protect Food From Pests?
Pesticides like insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides are used in conventional farming to protect foods from weeds, mold, bacteria, fungi, pests, insects, rodents, and other predators. Organic farmers have a few options that they can use to keep predators away from their foods.
- Pheromones: Theses are natural substances that lure animals into traps or away from food.
- Quarantine: Organic farmers do not import plants and animals that may contain pests and other predators.
- Sterilization: Organic farmers sterilize some of the predators and pests around their farms to reduce the amount of mating and repopulation that takes place.
- Predators: Some farmers use predators that do not harm their crops but that pray on the pests that do.
Which Foods Should You Buy Organic?
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes out with a list of the twelve foods you should buy organic – known as the dirty dozen – , as well as a list of the fifteen foods that you don’t need to buy organic – know as the clean fifteen.
To read about their testing methods for this, you can visit the EWG site, but, to sum it up briefly, they test over 32,000 samples of the 48 most popular fruits and vegetables. The testing is based on six primary measures:
- The percentage of samples with detectable pesticides
- The percentage of samples with two or more detectable pesticides
- The average number of pesticides on a single sample
- The maximum number of pesticides on a single sample
- The total number of pesticides found on the commodity
What Are The Dirty Dozen And The Clean Fifteen?
Below you will find the dirty dozen foods that you should be buying organic and the clean fifteen that you should buy conventionally to save yourself some money. You’ll notice that next to each dirty dozen food I have listed a season. This indicates the time of year that you should be buying these foods to reduce cost and to maximize the foods’ nutrient density.
The Dirty Dozen
- Apples (year-round)
- Strawberries (spring)
- Grapes (summer)
- Celery (year-round)
- Peaches (summer)
- Spinach (spring)
- Sweet bell peppers (year-round)
- Imported nectarines (summer)
- Cucumbers (summer)
- Cherry tomatoes (summer)
- Imported snap peas (summer) (not paleo)
- Potatoes (fall) (not paleo)
- *Hot peppers
- *Kale/collards (winter)
The Clean Fifteen
- Sweetcorn (not paleo)
- Frozen sweet peas (not paleo)
- Sweet potatoes
Interesting findings From The EWG Testing
- Two thirds of the samples in government tests contained pesticide residues (bug and weed killers).
- Avocados were the cleanest food tested.
- Every sample of imported nectarines and 99% of apples tested positive for one pesticide.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, save yourself a few bucks by buying only those dirty dozen foods organic and by buying them when they’re in season.
Any questions about this article? Post them in the comments below.
Additional Resources & References
- Local Harvest Farmers’ Market Finder
- Local Harvest Organic Farms List
- Certified Organics Report released in May 2007. The Certified Organic Growers Association.
- Paddock C. Organic Food Is More Nutritious Say EU Researchers, Medical News Today, Oct. 2007
- National Pesticide Information Center
- Going Organic?
Photo credit: Jessica Spengler
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