How do you decide which foods to buy organic? Which are the most important foods to buy organic?
Let's consider separately: eggs; dairy; fruit and vegetables; bread and whole grains; other processed food; meat; and seafood.
Remember that the term "organic" when used regarding food (except seafood and pet food) is regulated and enforced by the USDA. The term "natural" is not: when the word "natural" is used on a food package, it does not have any enforceable meaning. Anything can be labeled "natural," but only USDA-certified organic foods can be labeled "organic."
Briefly, organically raised crops are grown without synthetic pesticides and without genetic modification. Organically raised animals are not treated with chemicals and are given organic feed. A USDA process certifies crops, produce, and animal products as organic.
Because genetically modified foods and ingredients are not identified on conventional food labels, a way to avoid genetically modified corn, soy, canola, and sugar is to buy organic food. Genetically modified crops usually introduce pesticide into food. Also, genetically modified crops appear to be harmful to animals that eat them. See Genetically modified food products for avoiding genetic modification as a reason for foods to buy organic.
For basic information about USDA organic, see What are organic foods? and Reasons to eat organic food.
Organic eggs are easy to find in supermarkets as well as natural food stores.
Organic egg characteristics:
What's wrong with conventional (non-organic) eggs? Half a billion salmonella-infected eggs were recalled in 2010 from conventional egg operations. In these, the hens were kept in extremely crowded and filthy conditions that reportedly included mountains of manure and massive rodent infestations. These egg operations were not closed; they continue to supply eggs to U.S. supermarkets. These conditions are almost certainly not unusual for conventional egg operations.
Organic regulations dictate healthier, less crowded conditions with considerably better fed hens. This results in higher quality eggs with a much lower possibility of disease.
Of foods to buy organic, organic eggs are an easy way to replace a conventional food hazard.
Not all organic eggs are alike. Choose the highest-quality brands of eggs with the information from the Cornucopia Institute.
Cornucopia Institute: Organic Egg Scorecard
Cornucopia Institute: Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture
Organic milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products are widely available. Like eggs, organic dairy products are a simple and effective example of the foods to buy organic.
Organic dairy products characteristics:
What's wrong with conventional cows? They are subject to enormous amounts of chemicals and to crowded and difficult conditions. Toxins from feed, pesticide sprays, and drugs concentrate in the milk as well as the fat of the cows.
Many conventional cows are injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) resulting in increased hormones in milk and increased illness that leads to more pus and antibiotics in milk.
The Cornucopia Institute has been a watchdog for the methods of organic dairy farming.
Cornucopia Institute: Organic Dairy Scorecard
Cornucopia Institute: Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk
When you buy organic fruit and vegetables, you get immediate feedback on your choice: the taste of organic food.
This may reflect the improved nutrition: an estimated 25% more of many nutrients and 25% more antioxidants. The Organic Center points out that this can be equal to an extra fruit or vegetable per day!
It is possible to avoid many or most pesticides in food with organic fruit and vegetables.
For these reasons, fruits and vegetables are very popular foods to buy organic.
Organic fruit and vegetables characteristics:
The USDA has found that the majority of conventional fruits and vegetables contain pesticide residue. However, some fruits and vegetables are very heavily treated with pesticides while others are less so.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports on the "cleanest" and the "dirtiest" conventional fruits and vegetables. EWG information is one method for choosing the most important foods to buy organic. There are also a few other considerations for fruit and vegetables.
The clean fifteen and the dirty dozen
USDA tests thousands of produce samples each year for pesticide residue. In the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis, 70% of the produce samples have residue of at least one pesticide; 10% have residue of between five and thirteen different pesticides.
EWG examined the results of USDA's tests on 49 fruits and vegetables and found that conventional produce varies widely in likelihood of contamination. For example, 95% of samples of celery tested positive for pesticide residue, but only 10% of onions did. Buying the "Dirty Dozen" only in organic, and the "Clean Fifteen" conventional, can help you reduce pesticide exposure from fruits and vegetables by up to 80%.
Environmental Working Group: EWG's 2021 Shopper's Guide
Toxic Sprout Inhibitors
However, conventional onions and potatoes are treated with sprout inhibitors that are toxic and should be avoided if possible. These are the chemicals maleic hydrazide (MH-30) and chlorpropham (CIPC).
Few fruits and vegetables currently marketed are genetically modified. These are: about 50% of Hawaiian papaya, and a small percentage of zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, sweet corn, and alfalfa. Sugar beets, the source of refined sugar, are also currently grown in a genetically modified form.
The Organic Center: New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Organic Food
The Organic Center: Elevating Antioxidant Levels in Food
University of Idaho Extension: Organic and Alternative Methods for Potato Sprout Control in Storage (PDF)
Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service: Onions and Their Relatives (PDF)
There are some very high quality organic breads available. Of course, to find whole grains or high quality, you need to read labels carefully.
Organic unprocessed whole grains, such as brown rice, millet, and quinoa, are easily obtainable in natural food stores.
Organic bread characteristics:
Unfortunately, organic processed food is not more nutritious than conventional processed food. Industrial food processing invariably involves the removal or destruction of nutrients.
Buying organic processed food does help you avoid genetically modified food products, avoid some harmful food additives, and avoid pesticides. Each of these is a major health benefit.
Organic processed food characteristics:
70% of conventional processed food contains genetically modified ingredients. None of it is labeled.
To avoid GMO in conventional food, you can use this guide to brand-name foods: Non-GMO Shopping Guide
Avoiding toxins is the primary reason to buy organic meat. The raising of conventional animals involves an excessive amount of toxins that then concentrate in the animals' fat. These toxins include hormones (including synthetic hormones in meat), antibiotics, residue from non-food feed, pesticide residue absorbed by the animals after direct spraying, pesticides from conventionally grown feed, and effects of genetically modified feed.
Conventionally raised animals are not healthy; you then eat the meat of unhealthy animals. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are kept in extremely unhealthy conditions in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). A CAFO is a feedlot or building that contains thousands or tens of thousands of animals.
Organic meat characteristics:
An argument can be made that meat is the most important of foods to buy organic. The difficulty is, of course, availability and cost. Many people who buy organic meat adjust their diets to smaller amounts of meat.
The type of plant matter fed to cattle is a separate issue from organic certification.
Whether animals are fed conventionally or organically, grain is an inappropriate feed for cattle. It sickens them.
The natural feed of cattle is pasture; pasture-fed cattle are known as "grass fed." Grass-fed animals may or may not be certified organic, but pastures are not normally treated with herbicides or pesticides.
Grass-fed meat has healthier fat content.
Union of Concerned Scientists: Greener Pastures: How Grass-Fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating
There are no organic standards for fish or other seafood. Imported seafood can be labeled according to foreign organic certifiers.
Thus, seafood is often misrepresented as "organic."
Usually it is recommended to buy wild seafood; farmed fish and crustaceans often have inappropriate or unclean diets that negate the potential nutritional value for the consumer. Unfortunately, contamination of wild seafood by heavy metals and other pollutants is common.
It is not necessary to be 100% organic to get benefits from organic food. You can decide which foods to buy organic by considering the benefits of each type of food. You can adapt your buying to get the "most bang for the buck" or to address the food quality issues that are the most important to you.
Choosing which foods to buy organic can be an enriching experience. You learn more about the food you eat and gain more control over what you buy.