How do I eat Organic? (the dirty dozen vs. the clean fifteen)

What does “organic” actually mean?

Over the past decade or so, organic food and “clean living” have gained popularity among the health-conscious crowd. You see the words “all natural,” “organic,” and “100% fresh” on labels all over the grocery store, but do any of these labels actually carry any weight? Or are these phrases just some empty marketing scheme used to milk even more money out of consumers?

When it comes to produce (fresh fruits and veggies), organic labels  indicate that the plants have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or other toxins.

When it comes to meat, eggs, and dairy products, “organic” usually means that the animals producing the foods have not been subjected to growth hormones or other antibiotics. There is lots of debate over whether or not hormones and antibiotics in meat and milk have any effect on the person consuming those, but I trust that you can do your own research on this one. To keep things simple, I’ll be focusing on only on organic produce in the post.

The USDA breaks down the lingo of some of these food labels and explains what they really mean:

100% Organic: Must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding USDA organic logowater and salt). This is the only label that certifies a completely organic product and completely GMO-free ingredients. The USDA certified organic logo (shown to the right) will also be on the front of organic, packaged products.

Certified Organic / USDA Organic: At least 95% of content is organic by weight (excluding water and salt). The less than 5% remaining ingredients must consist of substances approved on the USDA’s National List. USDA Organic products are also usually GMO-free.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Up to 70% of the ingredients are organic. These products do not carry a “USDA organic” label, however their “remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without prohibited ingredients, including genetic engineering (GMOs).”

All-Natural: In reality, claims like this carry no legal weight. Unless there is a specific claim on the product about the percentage of organic ingredients, then the company making that product can legally write “made with natural ingredients” on it, even if that’s not true. Make sure to check the label on the back to verify!

The Clean 15 vs. The Dirty Dozen

Most people cannot afford to buy everything organic or they may not be able to find organic options in their area. The health community has broken down some common fruits and vegetables into two categories.

The “dirty dozen” are the top 12 foods that you should definitely buy organic if you are able to, because these items are usually heavily loaded with pesticides while being grown and they have thin skins that absorb the toxins.

The so-called “clean 15” are the top 15 produce foods that you can get away with buying non-organic if you have to. These tend to be exposed to fewer toxins during harvest and they often have thicker skins and rinds that act as a barrier between the toxins and the part of the food you eat.

Here’s a chart provided by the EWG (a non-profit dedicated to protecting the environment and our health):

dirty dozen clean 15 organic chart
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) website also has information about the safety and toxicity of  beauty products, personal care items, and household cleaning products.

 Why does organic matter?

Organic produce is not sprayed with synthetic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. These chemical compounds are used by farmers to keep their crops bug-free and safe from fungi that attack plants. And pesticides do their job well. However, the pesticides that cling to produce are linked to many health problems, especially if you’re already a chronically ill or chemically sensitive person. Over time, exposure to pesticides may:

  • Increase your risk for cancer

    • In February 2009, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a study that found that children who live in homes where their parents use pesticides are twice as likely to develop brain cancer versus those that live in residences in which no pesticides are used.
    • Studies by the National Cancer Institute found that American farmers, who in most respects are healthier than the population at large, had startling incidences of leukemia, Hodgkins disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and many other forms of cancer.
  • Act as endocrine disruptions in the body

    • They can mess with your thyroid function and hormone levels. This is especially risky for women, because the female endocrine system can easily be disrupted this may result in problems like hypothyroidism, menstrual irregularities, and adrenal fatigue.
  • Increase your risk for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and allergies

    • This is a condition in which you because extremely sensitive to and develop allergic reaction to all chemicals, perfumes, dyes, and foods treated with pesticides. It can range from moderate to life-threatening.
  • Mess with your gut!

    • Glyphosate (aka. the popular weed-killer “Round Up”) is strongly linked to digestive conditions like Leaky Gut, the development of new food intolerance, and Celiac disease. Glyphosate may also play a roll in the development of autoimmune diseases like Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Multiple Sclerosis. To top it off, this pesticide also destroys healthy gut bacteria and allows gut pathogens to thrive. Pathogens thriving = you feeling like crap!

A bonus of eating Organic produce is that organic foods tend to be:

  • Higher in nutrients
  • Better for the environment (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides pollute land and water)
  • Free of genetic modification (non-GMO)
  • Fresher and locally grown

Where can I find Organic produce?

Organic produce is starting to become available in most grocery stores across the nation. Some of the top stores that carry it are:

  • Trader Joe’s
  • Fred Meyer
  • Whole Foods
  • Local health food stores
  • Albertson’s
  • Walmart (surprise!)

There are also online stores and delivery services that provide organic foods:

  • VitaCost (and similar online stores)
  • Nature Box (delivers organic snacks)
  • Green Chef (healthy means delivered)
  • Brown Box Organics (USDA certified organic groceries delivered)

As you can see, there are many ways to get organic goodness these days. Yes, sometimes organic produce can be more expensive than non-organic foods, but sometimes it’s less than a 25-cent difference! If I have to pay an extra quarter to ensure that my spinach isn’t bathing in pesticides, that’s worth it to me!

Well, good luck on your next grocery store run. Go organic, or go home!


Em the Silver Spoonie



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