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What foods are worth buying organic and what foods aren’t

Taking a turn at the organic fork in the road is cause for celebration — you are going to start eating for your health, after all. But committing to buying organic can also be a confusing time at first, when you don’t know which foods to buy and which foods to avoid.

Let our guide to organic shopping make this transition easy on you. We’re going to answer all those burning questions on your mind (Why is organic food more expensive? Which fruits and vegetables are the most important to buy organic? Should I even bother with organic meat?) and save you some money along the way:

Read the labels

Buying organic isn’t as easy as you may think. You need to know about the varying levels of organic so you know whether the food you’re buying is completely or only partially organic.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Farm and processing operations that grow and process organic agricultural products must be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents.”

More: Organic foods you shouldn’t waste your money on

The only farms and processing operations that do not fall under this restriction are those that make $5,000 or less on organic sales.

To better understand organic labeling, keep the following points in mind:

  • Agricultural products with a “100 percent organic” label must be fully organic (excluding water and salt).
  • Products with an “organic” label must be made with a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients.
  • A label that reads “made with organic ingredients” means that the item is 70 percent organic. Products that are 70 percent organic will not have a USDA seal.
  • Excluded methods, sewage sludge and ionizing radiation cannot be used when a product is labeled “100 percent organic,” “organic” or “made with organic ingredients.”
  • Processed items that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot be advertised as organic on their front packaging; however, their labels can list any organic ingredients.
  • The mislabeling of a product as organic or containing organic ingredients carries a penalty of up to $11,000.

If you are committed to keeping all agricultural chemicals and pesticides out of your family’s diet, you may not care about about the price. If your budget is tight, however, consider buying foods that are at least partially organic.

More: 5 Reasons you should switch to locally-produced foods

The dirty dozen

Organic food is often more expensive than conventional food. One of the reasons is that organic food isn’t produced in the mass quantities that conventional food is, but demand is high. Organic food also requires more labor and time. You may wonder if spending the extra money on organic food is really worth it. It certainly can be, particularly with the “dirty dozen.”

In the organic community, the term “dirty dozen” refers to the 12 fruits and vegetables with higher pesticide levels than others, even after washing. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) coined the term after analyzing more than 100,000 pesticide test results, concluding that buying organic really is worth the extra cost in the case of “dirty dozen” — namely:

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Grapes, imported (Chile)
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

On the flip side, 12 other fruits and vegetables typically have low pesticide levels that make them better to purchase conventionally than others:

  • Bananas
  • Kiwi
  • Mangos
  • Papaya
  • Pineapples
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Corn
  • Onions
  • Peas

Organic meat and dairy

Organic animal products such as meats, eggs and dairy are likely to cost more than the equivalent factory-farmed products. The health and environmental benefits to buying organic meat and dairy are many, but if the cost is prohibitive, stretch your organic dollars by:

  • Buying organic products when they are on sale and freezing what you won’t use that day
  • Cutting expensive meats and cheeses into smaller pieces and rounding out your dish with vegetables and whole grains, rather than featuring meats and cheeses as the main course.

Shop smart

Join your local co-op for member discounts on foods, including organic products. Read store circulars for sales on organic goods and stock up. If organic items you don’t normally buy are on sale, buy them and use them as inspiration for a new recipe or two.

Following a 100 percent organic diet may not be feasible for your family food budget, but even buying just a few organic items a week will benefit your family, organic farmers and the environment.

Updated by Bethany Ramos on 4/14/2016

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