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Healthy Balance

“Those Are Some Expensive Tomatoes!”: When to Buy Organic

Is organic food better?The word “organic” is everywhere. Many grocery stores have separate sections for organic produce and packaged foods. You can even buy macaroni and cheese with organic bright yellow cheese powder.

That magical word makes us think we’re eating better, but it also comes with a higher price tag. Is it really worth it?

“The perception is that organics are healthier,” says Carole Havrila, a registered dietitian with the UVA Cancer Center. “But there is limited research to date to support this.”

Just what does “organic” mean? The federal government evaluates all products claiming to be organic to ensure that they are produced without chemicals, additives or manmade pesticides.

Over the long-term, Havrila says some studies showed that ingesting significant amounts of pesticides may be harmful. But when it comes down to it, “residue levels on conventional produce have been studied by the Environmental Protection Agency and are considered safe,” she says.

Also, a sticker that says organic doesn’t guarantee your produce will be fresh, clean or local. Organic growers still rely on standard practices to get their food in the grocery store, so your organic strawberries may still come from across the country.

Even if your produce is organic, you still need to wash it well. If it’s not organic, consider peeling items with a waxy skin like apples because pesticides can build up under this layer.

When to Buy Organic

So should you ever spring for organic? Havrila recommends the Environmental Working Group’s  “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists. At the top of the dirty (highest in pesticides) list: apples.

“Many of us eat a lot of apples,” Havrila said. “You don’t need to be eating chemicals over extended periods of time, so wash well or buy organic for those items you eat frequently.”

You should also consider buying organic if you have a compromised immune system or other health problems.

The bottom line? The health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables, organic or not, outweigh the risk of pesticides. Don’t skimp on them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a calculator to help you figure out how much you need in a day.

Follow these tips to ensure you’re getting the best quality produce:

  • Talk to your grocer or read labels to find out where the produce is grown.
  • Buy in season to make sure your food is fresh and save money.
  • Buy locally grown produce at a farmer’s market. It may not be organic, but the vendors can tell you how they grow their items. Plus, you’re supporting local farmers and getting in-season, fresh produce.

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