What ‘organic’ means
From apples to ice pops, fruit snacks to popcorn, organic items are filling store shelves and are one of the fastest growing sectors in the food market. As more and more people become concerned about the planet and their waistlines, it makes sense that they’re looking for better options to eat. But does organic always mean better?
The first thing you need to know is that ‘organic’ is a description of how food is produced, not necessarily how healthy it is, says dietitian Amanda A. Kostro Miller. The biggest factor in the organic label is whether or not certain pesticides and chemicals were used during the farming or harvesting process. So if you’re concerned about toxins in your food, it makes sense to buy organic – at least in some cases.
What’s more, organic meat and organic dairy could have more healthy fats, according to a pair of studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition. And organic produce has more antioxidants than conventional varieties, according to a separate study published in the same journal. But the nutrition varies greatly between foods and while it may be worth it to buy organic for foods on the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, there are plenty of foods where conventional is just as good as organic, Kostro Miller says.
Organic macaroni and cheese
White pasta doesn’t need to be organic because it’s so highly processed that the outer layers of the wheat – the part that pesticides adhere to – are stripped off, making pesticide residue of little concern, says dietitian, Jodi Greebel.
Organic seed butters
Going organic for peanut butter is a good idea, but save your money when it comes to seed butter, Greebel says. “Sunflower seeds, for example, generally don’t have quite as high a pesticide residue,” she explains.
Lollipops, like most confectionery, are really just sugar and when it comes to your health organic sugar isn’t any better for you than regular sugar, says dietitian Shari Portnoy. Labelling sweets as organic is just trying to trick you into thinking it’s healthy with marketing hype, she warns.
That thick, prickly skin that makes it so tough to get into this sweet fruit also helps keep pesticides out, Greebel says. “Fruits with thick skins generally have less pesticide residue,” she says. To save money, buy conventionally grown pineapples, Greebel suggests.
Organic olive oil
Olive oil is a great source of healthy fats but when it comes to getting the most bang for your buck, the sourcing and quality are far more important than whether or not it’s organic, says dietitian, nutritionist and chef, Jennifer Lease. “You want extra-virgin olive oil because it is the first press of the olives and has not been refined or treated chemically,” she explains.
“Pay attention to the packaging and label of the oil, as well. It should be in a dark or opaque bottle to avoid contact with light, and the label should identify the country of origin, harvest date, and ensure that it is truly extra virgin.
Organic bananas are often just a few cents more per pound than their conventional counterparts so it may be tempting to think, ‘Better safe than sorry.’ But there’s really no difference between organic and regular bananas since the thick, inedible peel keeps any pesticides out, Portnoy says. One reason you may still want to go organic: bananas are heavily treated with pesticides, exposing workers to unhealthy levels of toxins.
If you see ‘organic’ on a fish or seafood label, be very wary since there is no official standard for organic seafood, making the word meaningless in this case, Lease says. “The aquatic environment where wild fish live cannot be controlled and therefore we simply don’t know their feed or potential contact with environmental toxins and debris,” she explains.
Instead, the most important quality to look for is how the seafood is sourced. “Choose local fish when you can, wild over farmed, and look for sustainably sourced,” she says. Eating smaller fish, like sardines, can also help you avoid toxins.
Fans of tortilla and corn chips can rest easy: your guac is safe, regardless of whether you used organic or conventional avocados. “I worked with an avocado company that grew both conventional and organic and learned that avocados are only sprayed every seven years, and even then, the pesticide for organic vs conventional is similar – it’s just the application method that’s different,” explains nutritionist, chef and author Ariane Resnick.
Honeydews, rockmelons, watermelons and other melons come with their own built-in pest deterrent: their thick rinds. “Melons have fewer issues with small pests due to their very thick skins, so fewer pesticides are needed making organic unnecessary,” Resnick says.
When you’re cooking up popcorn on the stove or in an air popper, you can save a bit by skipping organic. “Corn is one food that has an extremely low level of pesticide residue, to begin with,” Greebel says. If you love packaged microwave popcorn, however, you may want to spring for organic.
Snacks, such as cookies, crackers, and fruit snacks, are all junk food, regardless of the label. Whether or not they’re organic doesn’t change the fact that these are processed foods that typically contain a lot of sugar and saturated fat, Lease says.
Organic does not necessarily mean that a product is healthier in terms of the product’s nutritional profile. “In general, organic or not, we want to limit our intake of processed foods,” she says. “So, if you are buying something like cookies to have as a treat now and then, I’d say save the extra bucks on the organic counterpart.”
Organic citrus fruits
Similar to melons, citrus fruits like lemons, limes and oranges have thick enough skins to deter bugs, meaning they have less need for pesticides, and when they are sprayed, the chemicals stay on the peel, says Kelly Kennedy, a registered dietitian. “Since you’ll be peeling it off and throwing it away anyway, buying organic oranges isn’t the best bang for your buck,” she says.
“But I do recommend thoroughly washing the skin of any fruit or vegetable before you cut into it to remove any dirt, germs, etc. so that you’re not pulling those through the flesh of the produce as you cut.”