When to Buy Organic Food, According to a Dietitian

  • Written By:Michele Ross
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If you’re on a mission to lead a healthier lifestyle, one of the first places worth honing in on is your diet. In addition to prioritizing fresh, whole foods and limiting your intake of processed and fast foods, sugar, and the like, another great way to clean up your diet is to go organic when possible.

While an all-organic diet would be ideal to reduce your exposure to pesticides, hormones, and other toxins (more on that below), this isn’t always feasible. Moreover, making the switch to organic food absolutely doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor worth losing sleep over.

To better understand the benefits of eating organic food—plus which items are truly worth buying organic for the sake of your well-being—we caught up with St. Louis–based dietitian Jessica Bippen, MS, RD.

The benefits of eating organic food

While you may think you’re being good to your body by loading up on fruits and veggies, it turns out that conventionally grown fresh produce can pose pretty major health risks over time due to toxic chemical exposure—which is where the benefits of organic food kick in.

“Eating organic lowers your exposure to harmful synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and heavy metals,” Bippen begins. Then, when it comes to meat in particular, organic varieties “won't contain synthetic hormones—unlike conventional meat that can be treated with synthetic hormones and antibiotics to protect against illness—which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.”

However, going organic doesn’t only help avoid the bad; it also introduces more nutrient-rich items into your diet. “Some studies have shown organic foods to be more nutrient dense and have higher antioxidant activity,” Bippen continues. In addition, she calls out that organic animal products like meat and dairy boast up to 50% more omega-3 fatty acids to promote everything from heart health to clear, hydrated skin.

Which foods are the most important to buy organic?

“In a perfect world, all the food we buy would be organic. We wouldn't need a label for it and everything else would be labeled non-organic, but we just aren't there yet,” Bippen shares. However, to incorporate more organic foods into your diet, know that you can be strategic about which foods you should prioritize to start.

Here’s a dietitian-approved list of foods worth buying organic and why:

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Select fruits and vegetables

According to Bippen, the most important foods to prioritize when buying organic are often produce without a skin or with skin you eat, such as:

  • berries
  • spinach
  • peaches
  • tomatoes

All of these produce items are on the Dirty Dozen list composed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), indicating that they contain the highest levels of pesticides when grown conventionally. Bippen adds that it’s worth consulting this food list and opting for organic varieties if possible, especially if these fruits and vegetables are staples in your diet.

“Following the Dirty Dozen as the products to buy organic is a great way to save money while also minimizing your exposure to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and synthetic substances, pesticides, or herbicides,” she explains.

Animal products

If your diet includes the likes of meat, dairy, and eggs, Bippen suggests going the extra mile on these items.

“For animal products, I always recommend buying organic and grass-fed and pasture-raised. Ideally, you want those terms to be in the same label so you know you're getting the highest quality,” she shares.

Additional foods worth buying organic

While the foods shared above should take priority in your organic food haul, Bippen also recommends going organic when purchasing the following items:

  • wheat
  • soy products
  • snacks

In terms of snacks, Bippen reminds us that fresh, whole foods—think “more produce, nuts, seeds, and lean protein”—should take precedence over packaged items, even if the latter are also organic. With that said, “if your favorite snack brands aren't organic and it’s a small portion of your diet, it’s not something to stress about,” she adds. As always, small steps in the right direction can yield great results over time.

When is it okay to opt for non-organic food items?

Whether you want to save money or your grocer doesn’t stock a wide variety of organic options, know that some foods are safer than others if you need to buy conventional. “The foods you don't have to worry so much about buying organic are those that come with skins you don't eat,” Bippen explains, such as:

  • avocados
  • bananas
  • oranges
  • pomegranate
  • passion fruit

And just as the EWG calls out the top foods worth buying organic, the organization also helpfully offers the Clean Fifteen, their list of fruits and vegetables that contain the lowest levels of pesticides. Fortunately, this list includes staples that may be in your rotation already, including:

  • onions
  • cabbage
  • mushrooms
  • cauliflower

Again, it’s worth consulting this list to see where the findings are applicable to your own diet. Doing so can also help you save money while also gaining peace of mind.

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How to save money while buying organic food

On the topic of financial considerations, Bippen notes that it’s entirely possible to eat organic food without straining your wallet. Her top tips for buying organic food on a budget include:

  • buying frozen organic produce
  • subscribing to cost-efficient grocery delivery services, like Imperfect Foods
  • shopping for organic items at conventional grocers (e.g., Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Walmart) vs. more expensive specialty stores
  • supporting local growers at a farmers market

“I always recommend doing what you can with what you know and within your means,” Bippen shares. “I'd rather you eat an apple than not get in the fiber, vitamins, and nutrients because you're too stressed about it not being organic.”

Now that you have a quick guide to which foods are best to buy organic, you can apply these learnings to your own diet at your own pace. To make the transition work for you without getting overwhelmed. “Think about the foods you eat daily or the most,” Bippen advises. “Start with those and you'll greatly reduce your toxic load.” From there, adjust your grocery haul as you see fit when it comes to availability and your budget.

For more nutrition and wellness tips, be sure to follow Jessica Bippen on Instagram.

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