Organic or Not? A Guide to Knowing when Organic Matters

If you’re like most health-conscious shoppers, you know all about the importance of eating USDA-certified organic foods. But new research tells us that eating exclusively organic may not always be necessary. You can still fight illness and promote wellness without a completely organic diet. This article offers some tips on when to buy organic and when you may not need to worry about it.

Toxins are everywhere

Toxicity is a growing and alarming problem. Increasing numbers of toxins are in our homes, foods and air; it’s difficult to avoid them. But pesticides are toxic by design, so it makes no sense to eat them if we have a choice. They’re created expressly to kill living organisms: insects, plants and fungi that are considered pests. They’re also toxic to humans.

Research indicates that lowering pesticide intake has a significant, positive impact on health and wellness . “Once you switch from conventional food to organic, the pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) that we can measure in the urine disappears,” says Chensheng Lu, a professor at Emory University’s School of Public Health and a leading authority on pesticides and children. “The level returns immediately when you go back to the conventional diets. The transformation is extremely rapid.” Lu is the principal author of a pesticide study published online in the current issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Buy organic versions of “The Dirty Dozen”

Always buy organic versions of the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables, those that that “soak up” toxins like a sponge. Researchers call the most-contaminated fruits and vegetables “The Dirty Dozen.” According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), eating these foods “non-organically” exposes you to an average of 10 pesticides a day, depending on what you eat . So it makes sense to buy them organic—always. These include such favorite foods as strawberries, celery and peaches. These 12 foods, ranked in order from “dirtiest” to “cleanest,” are: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, kale and collard greens, cherries, potatoes and grapes.

Reduce toxins by eating non-organic, too

But what about other foods that are not part of the dangerous 12? Some tend not to “soak up” pesticides. So it’s relatively safe to eat them. For instance, when eating non-organic versions of the 15 least dangerous fruits and veggies, you’ll consume fewer than two pesticides. For instance, onions, corn, sweet potatoes and watermelon are all relatively low-risk foods.

The following small, simple steps can make a huge difference in your health in the long run. Start today!

Tip 1: Keep the list with you

Copy or clip the list below and keep it in your wallet or purse to use when shopping. If you must choose between organic and non-organic, follow this list. Fruits and vegetables at the top of the list are “cleaner” because they absorb and maintain fewer pesticides; non-organic versions of those should be fine. Those at the bottom have more pesticides; buy USDA-certified organic versions of those.

Tip 2: Buy locally

Find local farmers that grow organically. Fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables are more nutritious because they are picked when ripe (without traveling long distances), they taste better and they usually have fewer pesticides. Learn about the local farmers’ markets in your area, and don’t hesitate to ask about growing processes and pesticide use. Also look for international markets, as they often maintain personal relationships with local producers. They usually offer affordable prices on their USDA-certified organic produce.

Tip 3: Clean produce with a simple, cost-effective scrub

Wash your produce with a mix of equal parts water and vinegar in a small spray bottle, then follow with a rinse of 3% food-grade hydrogen peroxide. It helps reduce pesticides greatly.


Healthy “Cheetos”

(Note: It’s best if all ingredients are organic, but organic cauliflower and red pepper are essential.)

1 small head of organic cauliflower, broken into small pieces, stems discarded
1 cup raw sunflower seeds (soaking and sprouting is optional)
1 cup raw cashews (soaking and sprouting is optional)
1 whole orange
1 cup diced organic red pepper
pinch of sea or Celtic salt
taco seasoning (to taste)
3-4 Tbsp nutritional yeast

Place all the batter ingredients in a food processor. Process until they form a smooth batter.

Pour the batter into a bowl. Add the cauliflower and toss until coated.

Pour the batter onto a greased cookie sheet and spread so air can circulate.

Dehydrate in a conventional oven or in a dehydrator.

Dehydrator: Process at 110 degrees for 24 hours.

Oven: Heat oven to 120-150 degrees. Add the cookie sheet and bake the mixture for 30 minutes, tossing once. Sometimes leaving the oven door slightly cracked will speed the process. If the mixture is not sufficiently dry, remove the dried portions, then continue to bake and toss every few minutes.



Diana Raleva is the founder of Youthful Aging, Inc., which offers a “superfoods”-based wellness program. She also operates LifeCravers, a free health-information resource. She holds a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Foundation at Cornell University. For more information, contact her at 224-392-2510 or or visit

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More from Natural Awakenings

Local Companies Find Value and Vocation in Organic Food

While farmers’ markets and specialty stores are making locally produced and organic products more accessible, there is still a void in mainstream markets. Often those unaddressed domains can provide inspiration and motivation for people who have thought about starting their own businesses, as several local entrepreneurs have found.

Kombucha: The Magical Drink

Kombucha lovers agree that you can benefit from learning more about how this wonderful drink may have the potential to jump-start your own health.

The Other Side of Chocolate

Before you choose chocolate for that someone special, consider the fact that 200,000 children in West Africa work under forced labor conditions on cocoa farms to help produce much of that chocolate.

Amitabul Restaurant Offers Vegan Fare for Health

The Choi brothers' Amitabul is an all-vegan restaurant known for serving healthful foods based on their family’s recipes combined with Buddhist philosophies of cooking.

Ginger for Health

Ginger, a perennial rhizome, has been used medicinally for more than 2,000 years to treat a wide variety of ailments.

Add your comment:
Edit ModuleShow Tags

See More »This Month

A Farm that has Something to Say

After many community planning meetings concerning the creation of an urban farm and learning center in Evanston, The Talking Farm (TTF) was created to cultivate healthy, sustainable communities by supporting the production and appreciation of locally grown food.

Local Nonprofit Group Drills Wells in Tanzania

Local founders and supporters of the nonprofit group It Can Be Done! will celebrate World Water Day on March 22 with a resounding initial success story: a record-producing water well that will provide more than 5,000 people in Uru, Tanzania, with access to clean water.

Simple Herbs Yield a Bounty of Benefits All Year

Growing your own herbs can be a simple, and delicious, part of ecologically-minded living.

Therapeutic Needs: Essential Care for Everyone

“Massage is not a luxury, it is a basic need in today’s society,” says Sandy Saldano, owner of Therapeutic Kneads in Highland Park.

Kombucha: The Magical Drink

Kombucha lovers agree that you can benefit from learning more about how this wonderful drink may have the potential to jump-start your own health.

How to Detox the Right Way

Many people think of a detox as a quick way to lose weight, a colon cleanse from an infomercial or a lemon-juice-and-cayenne-pepper fast. But what does it actually mean to detox?