feature: ultimate guide to organic food (what to buy & what you can skip)

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Are you eating organic food? How much? Do you know why?

The term organic is often used as a marketing ploy. What is organic food? How is the term organic regulated? Should you be buying organic food? Let’s look into it.

What is Organic Food?

It is often believed that organic food is fruits and vegetables without pesticides. But that’s not fully the case. 

Organic refers to how food is produced and it applies to more than just produce. 

Organic foods are produced without artificial chemicals & food additives, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In other words, organic products are produced by “natural” farming methods.

Organic is a government regulated term. So, organic is different depending on where in the world you are.

In the US, organic food must be 

  1. produced without excluded method
  2. produced using only allowed substances, and
  3. overseen by a certifying agent

Furthermore, the USDA allows for three different types of organic labeling on products. 

  • 100% Organic: pretty self-explanatory. Everything about the product is organic, no exceptions.
  • Organic: 95% of the product (excluding water and salt) is organic.
  • Made with Organic _____: This claim can be put on labels if it’s at least 70% organic and they can list 3 ingredients.

Canada, the US, the EU, Japan, Switzerland, and Costa Rica the regulations are all very similar. Other countries may vary.

Why do People Eat Organic Food?

There are many reasons people believe organic food is better, but these three are the most common.

1) Hormones & Pesticides = Cancer

Many people believe that the pesticides used on crops are increasing rates of cancer. The same belief is commonly held for growth hormones given to animals.

2) Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a real thing. Illnesses are becoming resistant to antibiotics and thus becoming harder to cure. 

Some people believe that the antibiotics used in raising animals are a large factor in this. They think antibiotics are passed to people from animals which is raising our antibiotic resistance.

3) Animal Welfare

Many people believe that organic standards provide animals with a better quality of life. 

Eating Organic Food Types

I’m going to break down different organic foods. Unless otherwise stated, I’m basing the following information on American standards. If you’re reading from another place, you might have different standards – by a little or a lot.

Organic Meat

Organic meat will eat organic feed and be free of added hormones and antibiotics. Meat regulations also require the animal to spend time outdoors and have enough space to live comfortably.

Should I Eat Organic Meat?

The science on antibiotic resistance and increased cancer is currently inconclusive. I can’t say with any certainty that either of these reasons is true or false. They may wind up being either. 

As for animal welfare, yes there are more regulations but they don’t necessarily equal a better life. For example, a lack of antibiotic use means that sick animals might suffer more because of a lack of treatment options. Furthermore, the term “comfortably” is quite subjective. But, many people believe these regulations are significantly better than the alternative.

At this point, buying organic meat is something you’ll have to let your own beliefs (and budget) decide.

A good idea would be to visit farms. This will enable you to see the standards the animals are raised in.

Organic Dairy

Dairy is the area with the greatest variation between countries. If you’re eating or drinking domestic products, it could be dramatically different than the country next door.

For example, in Canada, it’s illegal to give dairy cattle rBST (a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring growth hormone). But it’s legal and used in the US. Canadian milk has less SCC (mostly blood cells) than American milk.

The way milk is pasteurized varies by country. In Canada, all milk is pasteurized including milk used in yogurt and cheese. Selling, gifting and purchasing unpasteurized milk in Canada is illegal. In the USA, some states allow for the sale of pasteurized milk and some don’t. 

Canada and America pasteurize their milk using the HTST (High-Temperature Short Time) method. This means milk needs to be refrigerated and consumed within 7 to 10 days. In Europe, most milk is pasteurized using the UHT (ultra heat treated) method. This means milk can stay unrefrigerated and fresh for up to 3 months.

Most studies indicate that pasteurized organic and pasteurized non-organic milk are the same. 

Should I Eat Organic Dairy?

It’s unlikely that you should buy pasteurized organic milk for health purposes. Milk is rigorously tested. Studies don’t show any conclusive differences between organic and non-organic milk (that’s been pasteurized).

For ethical reasons? Maybe. This is going to be a lot more dependent on where you live or where your imported dairy products are from. 

If you’re drinking unpasteurized milk – go local and organic.

Organic Eggs

Organic or Free Range Eggs? Are they the same thing? No, they’re not. 

Free Range is a term that is poorly (or not at all) regulated. In the US, free-range chickens must have access to the outdoors. That’s it. That’s the rule and my research indicates it’s not even checked on.

Organic eggs, on the other hand, are subject to regulations similar to all organic products.

  • Chickens are fed organic feed
  • There are no animal by-products in their feed
  • Chickens live free of cages and must have outdoor access (so, organic eggs are free-range, but free-range eggs aren’t necessarily organic).
  • No antibiotics (except during disease outbreaks)
  • No forced molting

Should I Eat Organic Eggs?

If you can afford it, yes. If you can’t afford it, then eat non-organic eggs.

Personally, I feel that you should do your best to avoid large factory farmed eggs. The treatment of egg-laying chickens in such farms is abhorrent. 

Organic Fruits & Organic Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables should be making up the majority of your diet. Check out these 7 Vegetable Superfoods and make an effort to add them to your diet.

Should I Eat Organic Fruits & Organic Vegetables?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides two lists annually – The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. 

Produce sold in the US is tested for pesticide residue. The Dirty Dozen are the 12 highest-residue fruits and vegetables and the Clean Fifteen are the 15 lowest-residue fruits and vegetables.

Before I give you the Dirty Dozen, I want you to understand that you should try to make room for organic versions of this list in your budget. However, if you cannot afford organic you should still eat non-organic versions. 

The Dirty Dozen:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

The Clean Fifteen

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Frozen Sweet Peas
  5. Onions
  6. Papayas
  7. Eggplants
  8. Asparagus
  9. Kiwis
  10. Cabbages
  11. Cauliflower
  12. Cantaloupes
  13. Broccoli
  14. Mushrooms
  15. Honeydew Melons

The Clean Fifteen may be the least covered in pesticides, but it’s not all good. If you’re concerned about GMOs, non-organic sweet corn and summer squash might be grown from GMO seeds.

Once again – buy the best you can afford! Don’t let these lists restrict your healthy eating choices. Non-organic spinach (or any other dirty 12) is better than no spinach at all!

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Other Organic Products

You’ll see the term organic on a lot more than just food items. However, (in Canada and the US) the term organic is typically not regulated by the government outside the scope of food.

The Canadian Regulations for organic products states:

Commodities such as cannabis plants and their cultivation, cosmetics, pet food, and natural health products … cannot be certified under the Canada Organic Regime and cannot bear the Canada Organic Logo.

Buyer beware when it comes to the term “organic” used outside of food.

A Note on Regulations

Just because regulations exist, doesn’t mean that they’re followed. How often are organic farms checked out after they achieve certification? What loopholes exist? Some certifications might not be worth the paper they’re written on.

Your best option for getting humane, pesticide/hormone-free food is directly from a farm (or reputable butcher). This is not an option for everyone but you should see what’s available in your area.

Use Friends & Family

Buying directly from farms often involves buying in bulk. It can be a lot of food and most people don’t have the storage space to be purchasing huge volumes of meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. 

Find some friends and family who are interested in eating farm-fresh food. You could buy a cow or pig together and have it butchered to your specifications – not only will you know where your meat came from, you’ll probably get a higher quality and save money.

Buy the Best You Can Afford

CLICK FOR: Ultimate guide to ORGANIC (what to buy and what you can skip)

You’re not alone! Very few people can afford to eat organic everything. Start with eating healthy and slowly incorporate as much organic as possible.

Don’t let organic recommendations stop you from eating healthy, fresh foods. Non-organic produce is better than junk food!

What’s your favorite organic food? Share it in the comments.

Ready for more? Check out 7 Vegetable Superfoods next.

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