What to Buy Organic (When You Can’t Buy It All)

There’s a tug of war going on out there in the world of information. On one side, you have people vehemently claiming that organic is necessary, superior, and saving the world. And on the other, you have a group of skeptics who are saying it barely makes a difference at all.

For most families, the question of whether they buy organic groceries or not comes down to price, though. The bottom line is, if it’s not making a big enough difference for the planet or their health, most people are going to opt for the cheapest available products (and who can blame them?).

So when money is an object, and you have to pick and choose which groceries you spend more money on and which ones you buy on the cheap, what should you buy organic from the grocery store?

What Does Organic Even Mean?

Organic vegetables

Understanding what organic food is is key to knowing which foods matter the most to buy, and which ones you can relax a bit on.

The USDA certification process has a strict set of standards it holds farmers and food manufacturers to when the certified organic label gets thrown around, so rest assured — there is a difference.

While the standards have been criticized by many as being imperfect (and those critics are certainly right), organic foods are nonetheless held to a much higher standard of quality.

Here are a few things you can expect from organic foods that make them different from conventional products:

For Crops

For Livestock

  • Vaccines are permissible

  • Antibiotic-free feed

  • No synthetic additives in feed

  • Less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria

  • Pastures must meet USDA organic standards as well

For Everything Else

  • Must be made of 95% certified organic ingredients or more, with the remaining 5% made up of ingredients proven to be safe for both planet and people

  • “Made with Organic” ingredients products can only bear the label if they’re made with 70% or more organic ingredients

There is some debate over the nutritional content of organic foods versus conventional ones, but generally speaking, the research points to the nutrition content of them being roughly the same.

However, where you see the difference is in the contaminants present in the foods. Since organic produce is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, there is a much lower chance of these foods being contaminated by chemicals that have been linked to cancers and heavy metal toxicity.

The Difference Between ‘Organic’ and ‘Natural’

There’s a term you might have seen floating around out there — “greenwashing”. It’s a term used for the blatant marketing tactics used by many big food companies to pass their foods off as being higher quality and more natural than they really are, in an effort to jump on the organic foods bandwagon.

For that reason, it’s really important to realize that there is a significant difference between foods labeled “natural” versus “organic”. The USDA heavily restricts and enforces the standards for organic foods and produce, but there is no regulation or standard for terms like “natural”.

The bottom line? Read your labels, know your ingredients, and take labels like “natural” with a grain of salt.

Why It Matters

With the price of many organic foods being so much higher than regular foods, you have to wonder why most people would bother. We promise though, it does make a difference, and there are some big reasons to consider making the switch to organic wherever you can.

For People

Many of the pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in the US have been outlawed in other countries, not just for environmental reasons, but for their links to hormone disruption and cancers.

Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives, colors, and additives have been heavily linked to everything from behavioral disorders to reproductive cancers, and the long-term effects are still being studied and understood.

Simply put — organic food is cleaner and freer of chemicals that could be putting your family at risk.

For Planet

The benefits of organic farming for the planet are hotly debated. Some say that because the yield for organic crops is less, more land is required (and therefore, more energy) to farm the same amount of food.

Taking into account the enormous amount of energy that goes into irrigation, pesticide use, and fertilization though, it’s safe to say that the scales are fairly even in terms of energy consumption versus production.

What’s really incredible about organic farming is that not only does it not deposit toxic chemicals into the water, soil, and air that have literally been shown to change the sexes of frogs, but it also is much gentler on the land.

Because the USDA requires organic farmers to engage in practices like crop rotation and maintaining soil nutrition, you see much less of the process known as desertification. The humus of the soil stays in better shape, helping it to hold onto more water, requiring less irrigation.

Additionally, rather than being depleted each year by endless rounds of crops and synthetically fertilized to recover, the land is given an opportunity to recover between crop rotations. Using natural fertilizers like compost, farmers can add humus and nutrients back into the soil, allowing it to recover in a much more natural cycle while their crops grow elsewhere.

The Most Important Foods to Buy Organic

Organic produce

All of that being said, what happens when you can’t afford to make everything in your shopping cart organic?

Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list each year known as ‘The Dirty Dozen’, which is made up of the top 12 most contaminated produce in the supermarkets in the US.

While unpleasant to behold, this list is a great guideline for learning where to skimp (and where to splurge) or organic produce:

The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List

  1. Strawberries

  2. Spinach

  3. Nectarines

  4. Apples

  5. Peaches

  6. Pears

  7. Cherries

  8. Grapes

  9. Celery

  10. Tomatoes

  11. Sweet bell peppers

  12. Potatoes

  13. Hot peppers

What You Can Probably Skimp On

Organic dairy

As far as what you can afford to do without, there are a few areas that you can put at the bottom of your priorities list if budget is a concern.


While pesticide traces from commercial feed have certainly been found in cow’s milk and dairy products, the amounts are believed to be negligible to the health of the humans who consume it.

The biggest concern with cow’s milk is the growth hormone rBST, which has been linked to hormonal disorders in people. Most countries in the developed world have outlawed this hormone, but the US continues to insist that it is safe, and it is still used in some dairy products.

That said, due to public outcry over dairy products containing rBST, many retailers have pledged to only work with farmers who product growth-hormone-free milk, and most will indicate that on their packaging.

Processed Foods

While an organic bag of cereal is still preferable to a conventional one, the bottom line with processed foods is that they’re still not ideal for your health anyway. If you’re going to buy processed foods and can’t afford to splurge on the spendy organic brands, rest assured that the empty calories accumulate the same either way.

Which foods do you insist on buying organic for your household? Tell us on Facebook and tag us in the post! @WheatMT