How to Buy the Best Organic Foods

The market for organic foods is huge―and growing. Consult our expert guide to find out all you need to know to make the right choices.

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Pesticide problems

Pesticide residues are much lower in organic foods than conventionally grown ones. Chemicals used in agriculture that may find their way into the food supply are monitored by the EPA, which sets limits on how much pesticide residue foods can contain. According to the FDA’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program, which collects and tests random samples of domestic and imported foods, fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of trace pesticides―54.9 percent of fruit and 23.8 percent of vegetables. And studies have shown certain types of produce are consistently high in pesticide levels, which may make organic varieties a suitable alternative.

At the market

Environmental concerns, health, and the amount of your food budget determine which organic products make sense for you. But these shopping strategies can help:

Prioritize your purchases. Some types of produce contain more pesticides than others. Invest your organic dollars in traditionally pesticide-heavy produce instead of low-pesticide foods.

Think local and seasonal. Locally grown, seasonal produce may have a lower environmental cost than organic items that use fossil fuels and energy to travel long distances in shipping. If possible, consider local and organic produce.

Keep good nutrition in mind. When buying meats, dairy, or processed foods, factor the item’s whole nutritional package first, then consider the method by which it was produced. Minimizing sodium and saturated fat has proven health benefits, such as helping to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

No need to buy an organic version: Seafood. At the moment, there are no government standards for what makes fish or shellfish organic.

Ways to save

Ramp up. If you want to work organics into your budget gradually, start with one or two key foods you eat frequently―like milk or eggs.

Shop the source. Go directly to a farm or a local farmers’ market for the best deals on organic produce, milk, eggs, and meats. Prices there for organic goods are often cheaper than in supermarkets, and products are usually fresher. Check localharvest.org to find local purveyors in your area. Another reason to buy local: You can ask the farmer about how he or she raises food. For example, smaller organic operations may allow cattle more room to graze.

Buy private label. Supermarkets and specialty stores like Safeway, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Publix, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods all offer their own private-label organic food lines. Because there is no middleman, you can save as much as 20 percent, sometimes more. For example, Safeway’s O organics brand large brown eggs sell for $4 per dozen―that’s $2 less than a comparable national organic brand.

Organic labeling terms

Precise USDA rules determine how organic foods can be labeled.

“100% organic”: Such foods are organic down to the very last crumb, so they carry the USDA green and white “certified organic” seal. Most often, these are whole foods―apples, oranges, grains, or those with only one or two ingredients, like pasta.

“Organic”: At least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic. The rest comes from a list of allowable ingredients. These foods also carry the USDA seal and are generally composed mostly of whole-food ingredients―canned soups or frozen foods.

“Made with organic ingredients”: At least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic. However, these foods, which may be any type of processed or packaged food, cannot carry the USDA seal.

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