Of the top food-related questions I get asked as a dietitian—“Should I go on a juice cleanse” (probably not), “Do you ever eat junk food?” (yes), and “Are carbs evil?” (no)–the one that seems to give parents the most angst is this one:
“Should I buy organic?”
I understand the angst. I follow sales, clip coupons, and have a food budget too. And the reality is that organic food often costs more. And the internet is rife with rumors, myths, and arguments both for and against organic–so sometimes it can feel hard to know what to believe. But having some basic understanding before deciding if it’s worth it is just plain smart.
So here’s what I know about USDA certified organic products:
- No antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones are used in raising livestock and poultry. Research on whether growth hormones given to animals is harmful to people isn’t conclusive, but the USDA organic label ensures that the food won’t be produced with either of these substances.
- No toxic persistent pesticides are used for spraying crops and pastures. Though it’s true that the impact of these pesticides isn’t yet fully understood, children may be more susceptible to risks of chemical exposure than adults are because of their smaller body size and rapid development.
- No artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners or preservatives are added to certified organic foods or drinks. Sometimes I don’t have time to scour every ingredient list looking for artificial additives in the fine print. The USDA organic label on the front tells me I don’t need to—because those ingredients simply won’t be there.
The USDA organic seal is most meaningful for the healthy, whole food staples we use, like produce, dairy, and meat. But every family is different—and only you know what’s best for yours.
But that doesn’t mean I buy all USDA certified organic products. To be honest, I don’t have the budget for that. Here’s what I do instead:
Compare: Sometimes the organic option is just a bit pricier and that’s okay. But sometimes, when the stars align (and certain produce is in season or products go on sale), they are actually the SAME price. That’s when I pounce. Remember that extras can be squirreled away in the freezer–and even a surplus half-gallon of milk can be frozen.
Prioritize: I lean toward organic on the foods we eat the most (like apples and salad greens) and toward conventional on the produce that doesn’t tend to have many chemical pesticides anyway (like onions, which have a natural smelly defense against bugs, and cantaloupe, which has a thick rind that’s tossed away). You can find out more about what produce has the most (and least) pesticide residue by reviewing the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Like many parents, I also choose to prioritize organic for milk (since my kids drink it multiple times a day) and yogurt (which they eat frequently).
Wash: All produce should be washed well before eating, whether it’s organic or conventional. Washing thoroughly—running the produce under water while rubbing it well with your hands—has actually been shown to remove some of the pesticide residue that may be present.
Alternate: When our budget feels particularly snug, I alternate between conventional and organic versions of foods and drinks, week to week. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for me.
The bottom line for me: The USDA organic seal is most meaningful for the healthy, whole food staples we use, like produce, dairy, and meat. But every family is different—and only you know what’s best for yours. And remember that no matter what you choose, the most valuable thing you can do is to feed your family a healthy overall diet full of fresh, whole foods (no juice cleanses required).