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To Buy or Not to Buy Organic

Is organic food worth the extra cost? Some items might be a higher priority than others. Experts recommend spending most of your organic food dollars on produce and the foods you eat most often.

Buy Organic: Peaches

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, recommends going organic on produce that is most susceptible to pesticide residue, like peaches.

Buy Organic: Apples

Apples are a good source of fiber, especially if you eat the peel. The peel also has nutrients that may cut your odds of getting cancer and heart disease. But the peel is also where pesticides can build up. So buying organic apples makes sense. If you can't afford it, scrubbing their skins under running water can help reduce pesticide residues, too.

Buy Organic: Sweet Bell Peppers

Bell peppers are among those vegetables with higher pesticide residues. But government limits set safe levels of pesticide use and residue allowed on foods, organic or not. Although some pesticide levels are assumed to be safe, the chemicals used are strong. Because kids' immune systems may not be fully developed, they may be at greater risk from some pesticides than adults.

Buy Organic: Celery

A crunchy, low-calorie vegetable with a bit of vitamins A, C, and K, folate, potassium, and manganese, one large stalk of celery has only about 10 calories. Whether or not you buy organic celery, you can reduce pesticide residues, dirt, and bacteria by thoroughly washing the stalks under streaming water. Do not use soap.

Buy Organic: Nectarines

This juicy fruit is rich in vitamins A and C, niacin, and potassium. An average-sized nectarine has about 65 calories. Scrub or remove the peel to help reduce pesticide residues.

Buy Organic: Strawberries & Cherries

Strawberries and cherries are a great source of vitamin C. And while buying organic berries may give you a lot of bang for your organic buck, you may also want to consider buying local. Locally grown foods are usually fresher, and kinder to the environment, than produce that's traveled a long way to your store.

Buy Organic: Pears

A medium-sized pear contains about 103 calories and is a good source of vitamin C and fiber. But pears often have higher pesticide residues than many other fruits. It's a good idea to scrub a pear's skin to reduce pesticide residue and bacteria, even in organic pears.

Buy Organic: Grapes

Grapes are a tasty low-calorie snack or dessert. One cup has about 104 calories and is packed with vitamins C and K. Raisins (dried grapes) are also a good source of iron. Try to avoid imported grapes, which often have higher pesticide residues. But don't eliminate grapes from your diet if you can't always buy organic. Consider buying organic grapes for children and if you're pregnant.

Buy Organic: Spinach & Lettuce

Spinach is a great source of protein, vitamins A, C, E, and K, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese. It's got about 7 calories a cup. Lettuce has about 5 calories per cup. But they also have high levels of pesticide residue. Buy organic or grow your own (greens do well even in large patio containers).

Buy Organic: Potatoes & Carrots

Potatoes are a good organic purchase, especially since most conventional potatoes are pesticide-intensive crops. They are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, manganese, and fiber. A medium-sized baked potato contains around 161 calories, without the fixings. Sweet, crunchy carrots are loaded with vitamins A and K and are a good source of fiber.

Buy Organic: Milk

Cows raised on conventional farms are often given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to boost the amount of milk they produce. Does rBGH pose a health hazard to humans? Scientists don't agree. But if you have a baby or child who drinks milk, consider taking precaution and choosing rBGH-free or organic. Organic milk comes from cows that have not been given antibiotics or hormones. Many conventional brands are rBGH-free but aren't labeled as such. Look it up online or call the milk company.

Buy Organic: Beef

According to the Organic Trade Association, livestock on an organic farm cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones unnecessarily. And although the risk to humans isn't clear, added hormones do show up in supermarket beef.

Buy Organic: Peanut Butter

Kids tend to eat a lot of peanut butter, and peanut butter made from just organic peanuts and salt is better than conventional peanut butter with added hydrogenated oils and sugar. The natural oils in organic peanut butter may separate and form a layer on top of the jar. If so, just stir it all up so it's creamy again.

Buy Organic: Baby Foods

Because kids' immune systems are not fully developed, they may be at greater risk from some pesticides than adults. Feeding them organic baby food provides peace of mind and ensures you give your baby the best start.

Look for the USDA Organic Seal

The organic seal means the food is grown, harvested, and processed according to government standards that include limits on amounts and residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Natural pesticides are allowed. Organic foods cannot be treated with any sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.

Understand Organic Terms

When buying organic products, look for the following terms on food labels:

  • "100% organic" -- All ingredients must be certified organic.
  • "Organic" -- This means the food has at least 95% certified organic ingredients.
  • "Made with organic ingredients" -- This means the food must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients.

Buy Conventional or Local: Papayas & Mangoes

The Environmental Working Group lists several foods as having the least pesticide residues and not worth spending the extra money to buy organic varieties. Tough peels on some fruits and vegetables absorb much of the pesticide. If you discard the peel, the remaining food has less pesticide residue. Papayas and mangoes are among these foods.

Buy Conventional or Local: Broccoli

The health benefits of conventionally grown produce far outweigh potential risks from pesticide exposure, so enjoy broccoli raw or cooked after washing well. Florets that are dark green, purplish, or bluish contain more beta-carotene and vitamin C than paler or yellowing ones. This vitamin C-packed veggie is also a great source of vitamins A, K, and B6, folate, potassium, and manganese. One cup of raw broccoli has about 31 calories.

Buy Conventional or Local: Cabbage

Cabbage is a great source of vitamins C, K, and B6, as well as folate and manganese. One cup of raw cabbage has only about 22 calories. Remove and throw out the outer layers to cut down on dirt, bacteria, and pesticide residues. Avoid buying precut cabbage, as the leaves may have already lost their vitamin C.

Buy Conventional or Local: Bananas

Bananas are a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and manganese, and a great source of vitamin B6. A medium banana has about 105 calories. If you want to go the extra mile, you can scrub even produce with inedible skins such as bananas before eating them to help keep any contaminants on the skin from spreading to the edible part of the fruit.

Buy Conventional or Local: Kiwifruit & Pineapple

An excellent source of vitamins C and K, a medium kiwifruit contains about 46 calories. Pineapple is a great source of vitamin C and manganese. One cup of the fruit has about 74 calories. Scrub and peel the skins of these fruits before enjoying the sweet flesh.

Buy Conventional or Local: Peas

A half-cup of fresh peas contains about 55 calories and is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, thiamine, and manganese. Peas are also a good low-calorie source of protein. A 100-calorie serving of peas (about 3/4 cup) contains more protein than a whole egg or a tablespoon of peanut butter, and has less than 1 gram of fat and no cholesterol. Rinse them before preparing.

Buy Conventional or Local: Asparagus

Asparagus can be found in green and white varieties. Four cooked spears of asparagus contain about 13 calories and are a great source of protein, vitamins A, C, E, and K, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese, and selenium. Wash thoroughly before preparing.

Buy Conventional or Local: Corn

A good source of thiamine and folate, one cooked ear of yellow corn contains about 111 calories. Make sure the corn husks are green, tight, and fresh-looking. Pull them open a little to make sure that the ear contains tightly packed rows of plump kernels. The kernels should be smaller at the tip of each ear. Large kernels at the tip are signs that the corn is too mature.

Buy Conventional or Local: Avocados

Avocados are loaded with dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium, and folate, and vitamins B6, C, E, and K. This fruit is an excellent source of good-for-you monounsaturated fat. But an average-sized avocado has about 227 calories. To be extra careful, wash the skin before cutting into it.

Buy Conventional or Local: Onions

A great source of vitamin C, one medium onion has only around 44 calories. Remove the outer layers of skin before cooking or serving raw.

Reduce Pesticide Residues

Whether or not you buy organic, you can do your part to reduce pesticide residues on foods with the following tips:

  • Wash and scrub produce under streaming water to remove dirt, bacteria, and surface pesticide residues -- even produce with inedible skins, such as cantaloupe. Don't use soap.
  • Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Eat a variety of foods from different sources.

Eat Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables

One thing experts agree on: Regardless of whether you choose locally grown, organic, or conventional foods, it’s important to eat plenty of produce. The health benefits of such a diet far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure. Government guidelines recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables for their health-promoting, disease-preventing substances.

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Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on February 06, 2014