Do you need to buy organic to get the maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables? We asked a Renown dietitian for advice on how to keep your grocery bill on budget.
Is it worth the extra price to buy organic fruits and vegetables? We asked Sarah Williams, MS, RDN, LD, registered dietitian and outpatient dietary educator with the Renown Healthy Heart Program, to answer our questions and share her advice on buying organic without breaking the bank.
Is organic produce worth the cost?
The choice to buy organic produce is a personal preference, since there is limited information on nutritional differences. Some assessments have shown no nutritional difference between organic versus conventional produce, while others report the opposite. The quality of your produce depends on many factors, including where it’s grown, the soil quality, weather, field variations, soil pesticides, cross contamination and the growing season. The fact remains that organic foods are lower in pesticides and higher in antioxidants, while conventional foods contain pesticides which still fall within EPA exposure-approval regulations.
Is there a difference between the “organic” and “natural” label on foods?
Currently, no formal definition for the word “natural” on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, “natural” claims have become common on new foods and beverages.
The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean a food contains no artificial or synthetic additives (including any color) from any source. According to the FDA, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
The USDA allows the use of the term “natural” to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products containing no artificial ingredients or added color. The product also must be only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term natural. For example, “No added coloring, minimally processed.”
The term “organic” has specific criteria levels and legal meaning. As defined by the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. A government-approved certifier must inspect the farm to ensure these standards are met. In addition to organic farming, there are USDA standards for organic handling and processing.
The USDA defines three levels of organic labeling for food:
- 100 percent organic: Products containing all organic ingredients qualify for this claim and an USDA Organic seal and/or 100 percent organic claim.
- Organic: Products with at least 95 percent organic ingredients qualify for this claim and a USDA Organic seal.
- Made with Organic Ingredients: Food products in which at least 70 percent of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA Organic seal cannot be used but “made with organic ingredients” may appear on the packaging.
How do I keep costs down when shopping for organic produce?
Look for farmers markets, which usually have reasonably priced organic produce. Also consider a local CSA (community supported agriculture) farm to buy seasonable organic produce at fair prices. The ultimate cost saver, of course, is growing your own garden. Two tomato plants can feed a family of four for the season. Also be sure to use coupons from stores with digital coupons based on your buying patterns. Choose foods that are as fresh/unprocessed as possible, frozen with minimal processing or canned/UHT sealed and packed in water without added sugar, saturated fats, salt or tropical oils whenever possible.
Are there fruits and vegetables we should always consider buying organic?
It’s true some fruits and vegetables have greater levels of pesticides than others. When buying organic is not an option, there is a way to shop smarter and buy produce lower in pesticide residue. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released its “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists. Tests by the USDA are analyzed by the EWG to compile the list. According to the EWG’s tests, nearly 70 percent of pesticide residue remains even after washing or peeling conventionally grown fruit.
Consider buying organic, if possible:
- Sweet bell peppers
These foods are generally safe from high levels of pesticides:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melons