Which Foods to Buy Organic

by | Dec 12, 2021 | Nutrition, Real Food

Image: Shutterstock

If you’re looking to incorporate more organic foods in your diet, a good place to start is with the “dirty dozen,” a list released annually by the Environmental Working Group, which ranks the pesticide contamination of 46 popular fruits and vegetables.

Annual sales of organic food jumped 12.8% in 2020, to around $56 billion.1 Is this explosion of demand warranted? And what does organic even mean?

Unlike other words you might see on food labels (see Real Food Article Are Health Claims Reliable for Food Selection?), the organic label is highly regulated and food producers must meet strict guidelines to claim the organic seal. The National Organic Program of the USDA inspects and ensures producers meet these standards for food and livestock:2

  • Must be produced using agricultural production methods that foster cycling, ecological balance and maintain and improve soil/water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.
  • No genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
  • Produced using only allowed substances.

This means no synthetic fertilizers, and limited synthetic pesticides for crops, and no antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock.

These farming practices reduce pollution, enhance soil and water quality, and promote a self-sustaining cycle of farm resources. In terms of livestock, they encourage a safe and healthy environment that fosters natural animal behavior. Animals must receive organic foods themselves and must have access to the outdoors, with pasture feeding accounting for at least 30% of the animal’s nutritional needs.

Do the environmental benefits extend to personal health benefits for consumers? Research indicates that there are nutritional and toxin level differences between conventional and organic foods.3 The organic choice offers:

  • Increased nutrients, with significant increased flavonoids that are rich in antioxidants
  • Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic meats, dairy, and eggs
  • Lower occurrence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in meats
  • Lower toxic metal levels such as cadmium found in synthetic fertilizers that plants absorb
  • Lower levels of pesticide residue

The Dirty Dozen

If you’re looking to incorporate more organic foods in your diet, a good place to start is with the “dirty dozen.” This list is released annually by the Environmental Working Group, which ranks the pesticide contamination of 46 popular fruits and vegetables.4 Because these fruits and vegetables are most susceptible to pest damage (think of the delicate skin of a strawberry), they unfortunately get a correspondingly increased dose of pesticides. If you’re interested in beginning your organic journey, prioritize these items first (or at least avoid the non-organic varieties):

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, Collard and Mustard Greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Peaches
  9. Pears
  10. Bell and Hot Peppers
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

How to Identify Organic Foods

There are four different categories of organic labeling:

  1. “100% Organic” (has the green Organic seal): All ingredients are organic
  2. “Organic” (has the green Organic seal): 95% or more of the ingredients are organic
  3. “Made with Organic _______ ”: 70% or more of ingredients are organic
  4. Items with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot be labeled as organic, but the ingredient list can indicate any organic items.

The Big Picture

Keep in mind that “organic” is not synonymous with “healthy.” Many ultra-processed foods can claim the organic label without being nutritious. And don’t get taken in by claims that food is “natural” or “all natural”; the FDA has no formal rules or definition for those terms. Armed with this knowledge, you should have no trouble finding a decent selection of healthy, real organic food in any large grocery chain store these days—they all want their share of that $56 billion.

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance


The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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