Organic Foods That Belong in Your Kitchen
Sure, you'd love to use all organic, all the time — but the costs can really add up. Keep your grocery tab down by keeping these organic food dos and don'ts in mind.
By Krisha McCoy
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Are you considering “going organic” to provide more nutritious meals for your family? Organic food was once hard to find outside of health stores or natural food stores, but you can now pick from a wide selection of organic food at most grocery stores and supermarkets.
While organic recipes make delicious meals, it can be unclear whether organic food is actually healthier or safer than conventional food. And many people wonder if buying organic food is worth the high price tags.
What Is Organic Food?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards to help shoppers know what they are buying when purchasing a food that is labeled "organic." Under the USDA's regulations, an organic food must be grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, herbicides, antibiotics, bioengineering, hormones, or ionizing radiation.
These USDA-approved organic food-labeling terms can help you know what you are buying:
- 100 percent organic.Only foods that are entirely organic can print this on their packaging and use the USDA Organic Seal.
- Organic.This term applies to foods made of at least 95 percent organic ingredients; using the USDA's Organic Seal on the packaging is optional.
- Made with organic ingredients.When the packaging reads this, the food must be made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
- Less than 70 percent organic ingredients.The packaging of these foods can denote which ingredients are organic on the ingredient list.
The Pros and Cons of Organic Foods
If you are thinking about trying organic recipes in your kitchen, you’ll want to consider these benefits and drawbacks.
- Organic food may be safer.The research on the health and safety of organic food versus conventional is notoriously limited. "Right now, organic [food] has not been proven to be safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown food," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN, dietitian, author ofThe Flexitarian Diet,and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. But Blatner says that some experts believe foods that contain pesticides, fertilizers, and hormones may increase the risk of cancer, problems with reproductive health, nervous system problems, and birth defects.
- Organic food may have more nutrients.While more study is still needed, some researchers believe that some organic foods found in supermarkets or natural food stores may have slightly more nutrients than their conventional counterparts. For instance, Blatner says there is evidence that organic oranges may contain more vitamin C than conventional ones.
- Organic food may be tastier.Some people find that organic foods can taste better than those that were conventionally grown. Says Blatner, "I do think there may be a taste advantage."
- Organic food can harbor microorganisms.Since natural fertilizers like animal manure are used in the production of organic food, organic food may be more likely to contain disease-causing organisms likeE. coliandsalmonella.
- Organic food costs more.Producing organic food typically requires more labor, fuel, and equipment repair than producing conventional food, so organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic food.
Tips for Bringing Organic Food Into Your Kitchen
If you decide you want to reduce your use of foods that contain pesticides, hormones, and other potentially dangerous chemicals, keep these points in mind when considering organic recipes:
- Focus on healthful foods first.Blatner says that before considering organic foods, people should make sure their diet is on track. "Nine out of 10 people don't eat enough fruits and vegetables," she says. Whether your produce is organic doesn't matter until you are getting the minimum of 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables you need each day.
- Pick and choose.Most families cannot afford to buy all organic foods. When doing her own shopping, Blatner uses the . Here you can find the "Dirty Dozen" — foods that are best to buy organic — as well as the "Clean 15" — foods that are generally lower in pesticides.
- Organic does not necessarily mean healthy."One of the biggest problems I find with all the organic foods is that people start thinking of [organic] as a synonym for healthy," says Blatner. Even junk food can be labeled organic, but that does not mean you should eat it as a part of a healthful diet.
In general, foods that have no peel or are eaten with the peel on, like peaches, apples, bell peppers, strawberries, and celery, tend to have the highest levels of pesticides, and you should choose organic versions of these foods when possible. On the other hand, foods that are grown in their own natural protective coverings, such as onions, avocados, corn, pineapple, and mango, tend to be lower in pesticides, so opting for conventional versions of these foods is usually acceptable.
When it comes to meat, eggs, and dairy products, more studies are needed to compare organic and conventional versions, but choosing organic in this category can reduce your risk of exposure to antibiotics, added hormones, and certain toxins like mad cow disease and arsenic. If you are deciding between a conventional and an organic processed food, going organic is a good choice if you are trying to lower your exposure to additives, preservatives, sweeteners, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and artificial colors and flavorings.
The bottom line, according to Blatner, is that if you are already eating a healthful diet, you may be able to add an extra layer of health protection by going organic in your kitchen.
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