What foods should you buy organic?

What foods should you buy organic?

Updated: April 9, 2012 02:21 PM EDT
Strawberries are among the top five types of produce with the highest pesticide residues. (©iStockphoto.com/David Crockett) Strawberries are among the top five types of produce with the highest pesticide residues. (©iStockphoto.com/David Crockett)

By Karen Cicero
Completely You

My first job out of college was, of all places, at a farming magazine. I knew nothing about farming; heck, I could barely remember to water my plants. But looking back, the experience, which seemed so boring at the time, was actually cutting-edge. And it relates to some news I have for you.

The magazine gave farmers tips and advice for growing their crops organically (or at least with fewer pesticides), a practice that is called sustainable farming. I remember interviewing a farmer from Iowa, who asked me to not use his real name. He confessed: "I cultivate weeds (an alternative to using chemicals) in the middle of the night so no one will see me doing it. Organic farmers are laughed at here."

I often wonder what happened to him, because 20 years later, organic food is big business -- a $25 billion a year industry. (Read more eye-popping organic stats here.) My parents never bought anything organic when I was growing up, but I buy as much as can fit in my family's food budget. I'd love to avoid adding more chemicals to our bodies and our environment.

As you know from your own grocery shopping, organic products -- grown according to the USDA standards -- typically cost more than nonorganic foods. It could be an extra 30 cents a pound for bananas or a couple of dollars more for a gallon of milk. So I asked two staff members at the Environmental Working Group what my organic must-buys should be -- and where I can save some money.

Let's start with the produce aisle.

"I try to buy organic strawberries, because my daughter goes through a couple of containers a week. Is that smart, or is it a waste of money?" I ask EWG staffer Sara Sciammacco. "Smart. Strawberries are among the top five types of produce with the highest pesticide residues," she says. The other four: apples, celery, peaches and spinach.

Fortunately, I learn from Sciammacco that some of my family's favorite foods -- bananas, watermelon, pineapple, onions and sweet corn -- happen to be on the EWG's "Clean 15" list of produce with the lowest pesticide residues. (Read the full ranking here.) Note to self: Don't waste money on organic bananas anymore.

When it comes to dairy and meat, things start to get tricky.

I tell Sciammacco that I've been buying organic milk for 10 years to avoid the antibiotics and hormones added to feed in conventional dairy.

"Were the cows grass-fed?" she asked me.

"Um, I don't know," I confessed.

Grass-fed, as I recall from my farming magazine stint, basically means that the cows were allowed to graze on pasture rather than being fed grains in the barn. It's a lot nicer for the cows, of course, but I thought the benefits ended there. "Grass-fed dairy and meat have more healthy omega-3 fatty acids and a better ratio of omega-3s to the inflammatory-causing omega-6s," she says.

I did a quick Google search to see if our usual milk brand is grass-fed, and it doesn't seem to be. But I did find that Organic Valley, a national brand, launched Grassmilk earlier this month. We're going to try it, and I'll let you know how it is.

Overall, I think I'm going to be shifting around the money I spend on organic food. I'll be shelling out a lot less on produce items and spending much more organic cheeses and meats.

What foods do you buy organic?

Karen Cicero is Completely You's Need to Know blogger. A health journalist and magazine editor with more than 15 years of experience, she has contributed to such publications as Prevention, SELF and Health, and she has edited the dental column for Heart & Soul magazine. She loves to cook, read and ask lots of questions (which is why she's writing this blog). 

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