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What does the word organic actually mean? And why is it so important? For some it might mean that it’s a healthier option and for others it may mean that it’s more expensive. In this article, you’ll come to understand the definition of the term organic in our food system and find some practical tips for incorporating organics in your day-to-day life. 

What does the term”Organic” actually mean?

The USDA defines organic as:

A food or other agricultural product that has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

In other words, organic produce and other ingredients are produced without the use of harmful or toxic means in order to promote natural ecological balance for our own bodies and the environment. For a food producer to earn a USDA organic seal, it must employ detailed system standards and pass stringent and spontaneous compliance inspection performed by the USDA.

Are pesticides really that bad for me?

The Environmental Working Group, a leading source of information the environment, states, “Pesticides are toxic by design. They are created expressly to kill living organisms — insects, plants and fungi that are considered ‘pests.'”

Many pesticides pose health dangers to not only to the individuals consuming them but also the environment and nearby organisms that are participating in that natural (or unnatural) ecosystem. As acknowledged by U.S. and international government agencies, different pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including:

  • brain and nervous system toxicity
  • cancer
  • hormone disruption
  • skin, eye and lung irritation

Not everyone who has ever ingested a pesticide will develop these health problems, but the risk factor does exist and increases as pesticide consumption increases, so reducing your risk on high-risk foods might be a one strategy to take.

What are the varying degrees of organic status?

When it comes to single ingredient products and food such as meat, dairy, eggs and produce, a certified organic label indicates that 95% or more of the material is organic by USDA standards. For animals this means their diet consists of at least 95% organic feed. So for whole food, one ingredient products, organic status is rather black and white.

However, when pertaining multi-ingredient products, there are three categories for organic labeling as defined by the USDA:

100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients

Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients

Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)

Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package. So depending on your personal preferences and priorities for your health and diet, be sure to keep these standards in mind when visiting the grocery store.

Is there a “short list” of vegetables and fruits that are best consumed as organic?

Although the best way to avoid pesticide consumption is to eat only organically grown foods, that isn’t always realistic or possible. Not all conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are subjected to the same amount of pesticide load, as different foods absorb different amounts of substances. Of the 48 different fruit and vegetable categories tested by the EWG (Environmental Working Group) for their 2013 guide, the following 15 fruits and vegetables had the highest pesticide load, making them the most important to buy or grow organically:

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Hot peppers
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Bell peppers (all colors)
  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Summer squash

In contrast, the following foods were found to have the LOWEST residual pesticide load, making them the safest bet among conventionally grown produce items:

  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Pineapple

While it is important to make educated decisions for your body and the environment when shopping for yourself and your family, making practical and realistic buying choices for your budget is also a real predicament too. So here are 7 practical tips to incorporate organic products into your diet:

  1. SHOP SEASONALLY – Typically, produce that is in season can be offered at much more affordable prices as that crop is naturally blooming in accordance to the temperature and ecological circumstances of that season. Deals and steals can be easy to find on seasonal produce at your local grocer, for a complete guide to WHAT is in season WHEN, check out this great Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Produce Calendar. Print out this guide and stick on your fridge for a constant reminder of what to look for when heading to the store.

  2. SHOP FROZEN (and in bulk)- Frozen fruits and vegetables not only do a favor for your bank account but also provide more nutritional value as they are picked and frozen at their peak of freshness and nutrient value. Visit the freezer aisle for low prices and be sure to take advantage of sales as frozen food basically never spoils!

  3. HIT UP YOUR LOCAL FARMERS MARKET– Participating in your local farm culture is not only exciting, motivating and a fun way to spend a Sunday morning, but it is also another great place to find deal. If you’re not looking for any produce in particular, head to the market closer to closing time (typically around 1pm), when market stands offer great deals and sales on their crops to clear out before heading home.

  4. SAY NO TO PROCESSED “ORGANIC” FOOD – Boxed organics products can certainly cost a pretty penny, that’s why we suggest avoiding them altogether! Optimum health comes from eating things directly from nature, (or as close as possible)- not a box- so skip those organic flax crackers and save up for the good (and fresh) stuff. Organic doesn’t automatically mean healthy (Sugar can technically be organic) so don’t be fooled the the organic label alone.

  5. SALE SPOTTING – Grocery stores typically offer great sales when seasonal produce is on its way out or ending in season.  So when red bell peppers go on sale for a dollar a pound, chop them up and pop them in the freezer for a future stir fry or stew!

  6. WASTE NOT- Be resourceful with you organic purchases and try to stretch them as far as possible. Freeze bones from organic animals or trimmings from organic vegetables to make soups and stocks. Not only will you be stretching your dollar (and opting out of boxed soups and stocks) but you’ll be reaping the healing health benefits of bone broths and soup stocks. Freeze fruit on the cusp of going bad for fruit smoothies or for a sweet and crunchy treat to top your Greek Yogurt.

  7. KNOW THY GROCER- When visiting your neighborhood grocery store, keep an eye out for the best deals and quality at each location. For example, Trader Joe’s produce can sometimes be sub-par in terms of freshness, but some items are fantastic when it comes to quality and price (look for their organic Zucchini pack and Grass Fed ground beef!). Figure out what your priorities are and your favorites foods and shop around at a few of your local stores for the best deals on each.

I encourage you to explore this subject more, as what we put into our bodies is the cornerstone of living a healthy, vibrant lifestyle.  There is a multitude of resources available for your interests and education, but two good ones to start with are Organic.org and EWG.org, the website created by the Environmental Working Group.

Cheers to your ongoing health and happiness!

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