Updated: Aug 27
This is a very common topic among my clients as well as the content I share on social media. I am always encouraging people to buy organic whenever possible because it can greatly reduce our risk of toxic pesticides, which are known carcinogens. But there are many more reasons to do so, so I thought I’d write in today's blog post about:
USDA Organic label and what it actually means
7 reasons to buy organic
How to buy organic on a budget
What produce is okay to buy conventional (not organic)
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
This label represents a standard of practice among farmers, yearly inspections, and tracing organic products from start to finish.
It’s likely you have seen this label on food and products before, and although you felt like you should buy it over nonorganic products- you never had a real clear understanding of why- and the price difference was something to consider!
The reason why organic foods are more expensive than conventionally raised produce is that organic farmers receive no federal subsidies or assistance from the government. It also costs more to produce organic output. I’ll share some tips for buying organic food on a budget, later in this article.
But first- let's discuss WHY buying organic is important. As mentioned earlier, the USDA Certified Organic Label, means there is a higher standard that is required to be met in every process of planting, growing and producing crops, as well as the living conditions of animals, and how they are raised and fed.
Federal Standards prohibit antibiotic use in animals whose meat will be certified organic. According to the FDA, about 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States, are fed to farm animals. Antibiotics are added to the feed of poultry, fish, and cattle on industrial farms to promote faster growth and treat infections caused by terrible living conditions.
Synthetic Fertilizers are prohibited in organic food production. Synthetic fertilizers are created using non- renewable fossil fuels and are used in the growing practice of conventionally raised produce. This contributes to environmental pollution and damages soil. Alternately, organic farmers support soil fertility by using natural compost, practicing crop rotation and pasturing animals.
Irradiation is banned in organic food production. Irradiation is when food is exposed to radiation to kill bacteria. The impact of consuming food contaminated with radiation is still unknown and should be avoided. Irradiated food sold in grocery stores are required to be labeled and may include ground beef, spices, and imported fruits.
USDA certified organic meat cannot come from animals given artificial hormones. About 80% of all feedlot cattle are injected with hormones, in order for them to grow bigger, faster. In addition, 17% of all cows in the US are given genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH or BST) in order to increase milk production- which leads to more infections and antibiotics- it’s a vicious cycle. Choosing Certified Organic meat and dairy products will ensure no hormones were administered.
Synthetic Pesticides are forbidden in Organic Food Production. These chemicals are used to control pests that can damage crops and livestock. However, they can harm the environment and have been linked to various health outcomes, including cancer. In a peer-reviewed study comparing families who ate a non-organic vs. organic diet, pesticides in their bodies dropped up to 95% within 1 week on an organic diet! watch the short video summary, here.
Sewage Sludge is prohibited in organic growing practices. Try to keep your breakfast down on this one- sewage sludge, also known as biosolids, is a product of wastewater treatment. It is dried, then marketed as a “biosolid compost” for use in industrialized agriculture. Sanitation standards definitely help reduce health risk, but chemicals such as PCBs, flame retardants, heavy metals, and other endocrine disruptors may not be filtered out. By choosing certified organic, you are able to avoid foods grown with sewage sludge.
Certified Organic Foods do not contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) or Genetically Engineered (GE) crops. GMOs and are engineered to be resistant to weed killer herbicides, such as glyphosate. This is so farmers can spray their crops to control weeds, without killing the crop itself. However, the World Health Organization declared glyphosate a possible carcinogen, and it is found in a variety of foods, post-production, including cheerios. Also note, the primary use of genetically modified corn and soy is for industrial livestock feed, as well as High Fructose Corn Syrup, corn oil and soybean oil- common ingredients in highly processed foods.
Choosing Organic Improves our Health, and Lowers Risk for Cancer
In a 2018 population-based study that followed 70,000 adults, most of them women, for five years has reported that the most frequent consumers of organic food had 25 percent fewer cancers overall than those who never ate organic. In addition, those who ate the most organic fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meat, and other foods had a particularly steep drop in the incidence of lymphomas and a significant reduction in postmenopausal breast cancers.
In 2019, another study following 39, 563 participants aged 35- 74, concluded that “organic produce consumption was associated with reduced breast cancer risk.
Higher antioxidant levels, and lower levels of pesticides and heavy metals, are also found in organic crops, according to a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Organic on a Budget
As mentioned earlier, USDA Certified Organic produce and meat IS more expensive. Due to lack of government funding, strict standards and regulations (which is a good thing) and the higher cost of production, as consumers, we have the choice to determine if the higher cost is worth our health. Here are a few tips and suggestions that can help
Assess other expenses. Optimal nutrition and quality food is one of the most important drivers of your health status and deserves to be a priority in your budget. Where are you spending your money? One latte at a trendy café is the same price as 1 dozen organic, pasture-raised eggs – a high-quality protein source for up to SIX meals.
Don’t shop hungry- and bring a list. Statistics show that up to 20% of purchases made at the grocery store, is bought on impulse. By having a plan (and a meal) beforehand, you can ensure your buying exactly what you need, and staying on budget- even while buying organic.
Plan ahead to avoid waste. We touched on planning ahead and bringing a list in the previous point, but this bears repeating. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, we throw away several hundred dollars of food per person, per year. Create a meal plan, or have one created for you and your family. Buy a mix of fresh and frozen organic ingredients (frozen is even sometimes cheaper!) Planning ahead and reducing food waste can stretch your dollar and make room for organic buys.
Refer to the Environmental Working Groups Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Each year, they publish a guide that lists the top 12 fruits and vegetables that should be bought USDA Certified Organic, due to the high amount of pesticide residue left on them, even AFTER washing. This list is known as the "Dirty Dozen". They also publish a list of 15 low pesticide fruits and vegetables, which can be bought not organic, due to the low levels of pesticide residue left AFTER washing. This list is known as the "Clean 15". So when transitioning to buying more organic produce- this is a perfect place to start!
Bonus Tip: Wash all produce to reduce surface pesticide residue, by using a baking soda solution (1 tsp. baking soda per 2 cups of water).
Either way, Eat more Fruits and Vegetables
In an ideal world, every person would have access to and be able to afford organic fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy. The farming practices are better for our environment, and research shows its more nutritious, better for our health and reduces our risk of diseases such as cancer. Learn more, here.
It is important to note, however, that whether organic or not, the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, DOES outweigh the risk of pesticide exposure. However, according to the CDC, only 1 in 10 Americans are even meeting the federal guidelines' daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
6 Ways to Add More Produce to Your Diet:
Soups or stews - enjoy homemade soups– they can be super simple, quick and easy. Here is one of my favorite, veggie filed recipes.
Salads - Create a lunch of dark leafy greens and 2-4 other veggies with protein like organic chicken & healthy fat, like avocado. Check out this recipe for inspiration.
Smoothies - add veggies to your smoothie – fresh or frozen spinach can be added and you won't even taste it!
Sides - add fruits and veggies as a side with lunch and dinner (steamed, sautéed, roasted, raw). Consider trying this nutrient power-packed side dish at your next dinner!
Snacks - examples include veggies and hummus or an apple and peanut butter.
Sandwiches - add some greens and other veggies to make your sandwiches more nutrient-dense; choose lettuce wraps for both a grain-free/gluten-free option and to get in more veggies.
“Diets that are rich in vegetables and fruits are protective against many cancers. There is an enormous amount of work on this. A fairly large number of prevention compounds have been found in fruits and vegetables. When you look at the totality, it’s quite impressive.”
-Dr. Lee Wattenberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota who had been studying cancer prevention for 30 years.
In conclusion, I would like to encourage you to add more fruits and veggies to your daily food intake and to make the transition to organic whenever possible!