Almost every time I stand in the produce aisle at the grocery store, I have the same thought: Should I buy the $3.99 carton of berries or splurge on the organic one for eight bucks? I know that organic is better in terms of fewer unnecessary chemicals and hormones, but it is hard to put my money where my mouth is. (Literally.)
The same goes for home cleaning products, beauty items, and much more. Which organic purchase is really worth it? Where are my dollars actually making a difference? And what natural (or green or clean) items are truly better for my health, our community, and the environment?
Turns out there’s not one comprehensive list of all the things you should buy, but it’s clear that some choices are indeed better than others. Here’s the breakdown:
1. Decide why organic matters to you.
The struggle is real. Many of us want to be conscious, ethical consumers, but we also know these decisions come with a hefty price tag. Organic basically means you are likely not ingesting unnecessary chemicals or hormones, but motivation to buy organic likely differs depending on budget, background, and general preferences.
“I encourage my clients to think about what matters to them in terms of sustainable purchases,” says Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN of Whole Green Wellness. “There are usually three core reasons that motivate people: a desire for food safety in terms of pesticide residue, a need to support local farmers and communities as well as the general environment, and an interest in perceived health benefits.”
Source: Camille Styles
2. Make peace with what you can afford.
Most nutritional experts recommend going all organic as much as you can, particularly when it comes to food. My own personal rule of thumb is that if it goes on or in my body, I tend to invest in organic.
“For produce, I aim to buy organic for fruits and veggies where I eat the skin,” said Anne Mauney, MPH, RD of the blog fANNEtastic food. “Regarding organic food, I try to buy organic meat and dairy products whenever possible because I know that ensures the animals and the land are treated kindly and sustainably. From a nutrition standpoint, grass-fed meat (and dairy) also have a higher quantity of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids.”
Of course, on the months when extra costs arise or my checkbook is feeling lean for whatever reason, this isn’t always feasible. That’s when I rely on the “dirty dozen,” a catchy phrase popularized by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which refers to the top 12 fruits and vegetables most commonly treated with pesticides. The idea is to spend your money on the organic versions of the “dirty dozen,” and stick with conventional in terms of the “clean dozen.”
For 2016, the EWG “dirty” list includes: strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. The full lists can be found here, and serve as a great reference point if you’re unsure where to spend your extra cash on organic versus conventional. Or, you can generally stick to fruits, veggies, dairy, and proteins for organic and non-organic for items like nuts, oils, grains, and canned beans.
Source: Pinch of Yum
3. Know the difference between organic and “Natural.”
Think of the old math saying that goes, “Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.” Similarly, everything organic is natural, but not everything natural is organic. I mean, as much as I want to believe that the “all-natural” label on the bag of cheese puffs is truth, I know it isn’t—but apples marked organic are pretty straightforward.
Organic and natural are two very different things. The former is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and requires strict certification, which often explains the related price hike. The word “natural” is a food package term, also regulated by the FDA, but mostly refers to foods that are not altered chemically or synthesized in any way as well as derived from plants and animals. However, that doesn’t mean a natural item is a plant or animal.
The bottom line? Watch out for fancy packaging claims of something being “natural,” and stick to the words and labels that specifically say “100% organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients” as well as the official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic green seal.
Source: Amber Interiors
4. Prioritize the ingredient list.
Be mindful of other frequently used terms such as paraben-free, phthalete-free and sodium- or sulfate-free—which are primarily used in relationship to beauty products like shampoo, moisturizer, or makeup—and make sure you understand exactly what these words mean.
“Cosmetics and cleaning products are regulated entirely differently than food, so in these markets, your best bet is to ignore the front of the package, where all the marketing happens,” Wolfram suggests. “Look at ingredients list on the back instead, which should all be recognizable or easily researched.”
5. Educate yourself and use reliable sources.
Even though I’m happy to do a little Googling to understand what’s in my laundry detergent, I’d also love to be knowledgeable about what brands are better than others in terms of organic options. However, like many of you, I usually don’t have that kind of time. Nor am I a dietician or nutritionist—and that’s exactly why it is important to utilize reliable sources that do the legwork for you.
“Depending on your location, some people don’t have access to farmers markets, farmers, or building those local relationships, but ideally that’s the first line of purchasing produce. Beyond that option, try to purchase organic sources from companies who have integrity,” says McKel Hill, MS, RD, LDN of Nutrition Stripped. “A quick search on their website and you can learn a lot about how they produce, manufacture, etc.”
Additional recommended resources include:
Source: White Gunpowder
6. Remember that a little is better than none.
Buying a little organic is better than nothing at all, and you can start slowly. Pick a few things to prioritize with every grocery shop in terms of food, and when you run out of a beauty or household cleaning item, consider replacing it with an organic equivalent.
“Wash your produce with running water. See what’s available in your market: Maybe the locally grown item is a better choice for you versus something organic that’s flown in from California and out of season,” says Wolfram. “There are so many variables—like the bath bomb from Whole Foods produced in a factory compared to the homemade body wash on Etsy from a random mom in Brooklyn.”
The point is to be conscious of your choices, and know that one organic purchase can go a long way in redefining your consumer habits for health related or environmentally friendly benefits.