Here is the USDA description of what it means to be organic: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

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Given that definition, it's easy to see how organic farming can be of benefit to our planet- it seems to have less of an impact on the environment overall and organic cattle and livestock are treated more humanely. But what about our health? Well the big differences between organic and non-organic foods seem to be with pesticide residue, Omega 3 levels, and antioxidant levels. Studies have shown that organic food tends to have lower levels of pesticide residue (lower, not none!), higher levels of antioxidants in produce and higher levels of Omega 3s in meat and egg products. Pesticide exposure may be linked to increased cancer risk, and children and pregnant women are at most risk from exposure. The higher omega 3s are a result of the cows' and hens' diets- organic animals are allowed to graze on pasture and each a natural diet, increasing their Omega 3 levels. And the higher antioxidants levels arise from the produce having to fight off the environment without the aid of chemical pesticides.


So there are definitely some benefits, but it is necessary to buy everything organic? Probably not. When it comes to produce, the best way to determine what to buy organic is by consulting the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list. This is an annual list of the fruits and veggies that have the highest pesticide residue. (They also offer a list called the Clean Fifteen of the lowest pesticide residue produce).


Outside of this list, here are my recommendations of when to buy organic:


1) Baby Food- When it comes to pesticide exposure, pregnant women and infants are more at risk from exposure. Pesticide exposure can affect early childhood development so this is definitely an area where you want to play it safe. When it comes to baby food, always go organic.


2) Berries- These are often also on the Dirty Dozen list, but whether they are or not, you probably want to go organic. Non-organic berries are subjected to much higher levels of pesticides than most produce. In addition, organic berries actually have higher antioxidant levels than non-organics since they develop as a result of having to fight off the environment naturally. Hint: smaller berries tend to have higher antioxidant levels.


3) Dairy Products- Organic dairy cows actually get to munch on grass for much of their life (something they were meant to do!). Dairy cows are often given Bovine Growth Hormone to raise their production of milk, which leads to insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in their milk. IGF-1 has been linked to cancer in some studies so it's best to avoid it.


4) Beef- Just like with dairy products, much of the benefit of organic beef stems from the cow's diet of grass. Not only is there a higher amount of Omega 3s in organic beef but there is also improved CLA content, and better flavor. In addition, because they are not given antibiotics or growth hormones, there is less exposure to drug resistant bacteria.


5) Leafy Greens (Spinach, Kale, Collards)- Most of us use the rinse and scrub technique to clean our produce and get rid of pesticide residue. The problem when it comes to leafy greens is that they are incredibly hard to scrub without destroying them. The other problem is that leafy greens are pretty much ALL surface area, so they are a lot more likely to be pesticide covered.

Not everything you eat needs to be organic but if you eat a lot of the items mentioned above, or anything on the Dirty Dozen list, you may want to consider going organic with those items.