Organic Food Shopping Guide

Written by Helen Vong

Choosing to eat locally produced organic food as much as possible is good for the environment, animal welfare, and possibly your long-term health. Organic food can protect you against potentially harmful chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, which research suggests can act as hormone disruptors and neurotoxins. But with organic food costing as much as three times more than conventional food, going green on your groceries can cause sticker shock at checkout. Good news: You don’t have to go broke to eat organic. Ongoing research has given us better insight to which foods, when produced by organic methods, really deliver more nutritional bang for your buck.

Here’s what you need to know.


Per the USDA, the guidelines for a food to be labelled organic are as follows:

  • Organic fruits and vegetables must be grown on land that has been free of all banned fertilizers and pesticides for the past three years; has not been grown from genetically modified seeds; and has never been fertilized with sewage sludge (treated human waste).
  • Processed organic food cannot contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, and requires that the product be made up of 95 percent organic content.
  • Organic livestock must be given access to the outdoors, receive no antibiotics, and fed a diet of grass or organically grown grains that are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals.


Now that you know the parameters, here are the foods you should consider buying organic next time you’re at the market:


Fruits and vegetables that you would typically eat with the skin on tend to have high levels of pesticides, even after washing. For example, the latest report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C., found that cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches and strawberries contained 13 different pesticides apiece.

Conversely, produce with thicker skins, such as our protein shake essential avocados and bananas, have a stronger barrier to pesticides. When their skins are peeled and tossed in the trash, the chemicals generally go along with it. The EWG found that avocados were “the cleanest” with only 1 percent of the samples showing any detectable pesticides.

Go Organic: Apples, bell peppers, blueberries, blackberries, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, celery, pears, peaches, grapes, strawberries, nectarines, imported snap peas, and potatoes.

Keep it Conventional: Avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, mangos, papayas, kiwi, and sweet potatoes.


And whenever possible, splurge on the grass-fed variety. The difference between organic, grass-fed beef and conventional is profound, says Toronto-based sports dietician Nanci S. Guest, MSc, RD, CSCS, PhD(c), who has worked with Olympic athletes and is currently studying the effects of gene-nutrient interactions on athletic performance.

Conventionally raised cattle are usually fed corn, soybeans, pellets, and formulas containing urea or manure or slaughter-by-products. Conversely, cows allowed to roam tend to seek out the sweetest, most-nutrient-rich grass in a field. “So to a cow, the best tasting grass is healthy grass,” says Guest. At the nutritional sciences department at the University of Toronto, Guest has seen first-hand the comparisons of fat derived from organic grass-fed beef to conventional beef: “In test tubes, I’ve seen how the color of fat differs visually. Organic beef that is grass fed is orange colored because it has more carotenoids.”

Three decades of research have shown that organic beef is not only higher in these precursors for Vitamin A (important for vision, bone growth, and reproduction), but organic beef is also 50 percent higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef, per a meta-analysis study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. The higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is healthier, says Guest, because “a diet high in omega-6 has been linked to many medical problems from heart disease to major depression.


Organic milk is easily distinguishable in taste from non-organic milk. But taste buds aside, is organic milk any healthier? A study from the British Journal of Nutrition suggests so. It found that organic milk contains 40 percent more linoleic acid, and carries slightly higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids. Guest adds that organic milk products provide more anti-inflammatory benefits due to having a significantly higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio—important for hard-training athletes to quell post-workout muscle soreness naturally, with the added benefit of high-quality milk proteins to repair training-damaged muscle tissue.

As for eggs, purchasing them fresh from a local  farmer or buying organic ensures that the chickens were raised on pastures where they had plenty of space to move and were fed no antibiotics. A Penn State University study showed that organically raised chicken eggs had three times more heart-healthy omega-3 fats, 40 percent more vitamin A, and twice as much vitamin E than their confined cousins.


Certain greens are higher in pesticides than others. Topping the EWG Dirty Dozen list is spinach, lettuce, kale, and collard greens. About 50 pesticides have been found on these perennial salad staples. “The high volume of training and physical demands on an athlete’s body means that their metabolism is pumping through much more oxygen and fuel than the average person, which translates into more production of exercise-induced free radicals (the bad guys). Greens are not only packed with antioxidants to neutralize these potential harmful effects to healthy muscle tissue, but also pack a dose of Vitamin K and folate—two essential vitamins that may be hard to get elsewhere,” says Guest.


“Anything you get that is derived from large masses of raw vegetation and then concentrated before we consume it is best organic,” says Guest. “When [farmers] spray the live plants and then dry them, you’re getting a very small amount of product, which means a high concentration of the pesticides.” Also to consider: many of the coffee beans and tea leaves on the market come from countries with lax regulations for use of pesticides. To ensure the product is organic, look for the USDA Organic label on the packaging.

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