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Once looked at as just a diet fad, more people than ever are committed to buying organic foods and ingredients these days. The produce section at our local grocery store is a colorful testament to this steady change, with more types of organic fruits and vegetables being displayed right next to their non-organic counterparts. But is organic food really better for you? And how do you know which are the best foods to buy organic when the time comes to fill your cart, or when you’re shopping at your local farmer’s market?

Let’s take a look at the research behind the organic food movement so you’ll feel confident that you are making the right choices for your health and your family.

What Does Organic Really Mean?

When you are standing in your store’s produce section and looking at two containers of red, ripe strawberries – one labeled as certified organic, and one not – it might be hard to see any difference between them. If you sampled both berries, they might even taste the same. The difference is in how the berries were produced. Buying organic means you are getting food items or ingredients that have been produced without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. They have not been grown in a field treated with sewage sludge, or been subject to genetic engineering, or irradiated to lengthen their shelf life. If you are buying organic meat, eggs or dairy, then those products have not been produced using antibiotics or growth hormones.

Why Buying Organic is a Growing Trend

When people buy organic for some or much of their regular food purchases, there may be a few different reasons behind their decision. For some, it’s a commitment to being as healthy as possible. They want to eat food as close to its natural state as they can. They see buying organic foods, especially fruits and vegetables, as a way to make sure they are not putting synthetic pesticides into their body. They are trying to buy fresh, healthy foods that will nourish their bodies without having to worry about added chemical ingredients.

Others see buying organic foods as an environmentally-friendly decision. They believe organic farming and livestock raised organically is more sustainable and better for the planet. From their perspective, these farming methods are better for the soil because they use no harsh, synthetic chemicals. Some also believe organic farming methods offer a better life for livestock.

Which Foods are Best to Buy Organic?

For those who want to buy organic, their first question is often which foods are the best to buy? Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases the results of pesticide residue tests it performs on a sampling of both domestic and imported foods. Researchers from outside groups then analyze this data and come up with a so-called “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables that were found to have had the most pesticide residue, compared to other items tested. According to the most recent list, these are the foods that experts say are best to buy organic if you can:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

Should You Look for a Certified Organic Label?

At grocery stores, organic food that has been grown and produced under a set of strict federal guidelines will carry the USDA certified organic label. But if you are buying from a farm stand or at a farmers market, look for other kinds of signs that convey what you are buying is organic. Some farmers have gone through the arduous process of certifying their products as organic and will likely have a sign spelling that out. Others may advertise their produce as “chemical-free” or as being “raised organically.” While they have not been certified by the government, most are happy to talk about their farming methods. Striking up a conversation with them will be the best way to find out the backstory to those foods and allow you to make your purchases with confidence.

Why Are There Different Types of Organic Labels?

There are actually four different types of organic labeling found on foods covered by the USDA’s rules. Here’s a quick primer on what those labels mean:

  1. 100% Organic: All ingredients must be certified organic and any processing aids also must be organic.
  2. Organic: All ingredients in these foods must be certified organic. In some cases, specific non-organic ingredients are allowed, up to a total of 5%.
  3. “Made with” organic: These are typically multi-ingredient products. At least 70% of the product has to be certified organic. Any other food ingredients included don’t have to be produced organically, but can’t have been produced using prohibited methods.
  4. Specific organic ingredients: You will sometimes see food packaging with only certain ingredients listed as organic. These are generally multi-ingredient products that have less than 70% of their total ingredients that qualify as certified organic.

When you are searching for organic foods and other organic products, it pays to read the labels and understand the quality behind the brand. For example, people who choose BodyKey™ Oolong Green Tea enjoy its flavor and sweet aroma. But by reading the label on the box, they know it’s also an organically-grown blend of green and oolong teas.

So if you’ve decided to go organic for your next cup of tea, your selection of berries for breakfast or your steak at dinner, understanding what the labels mean and what foods are best to pick as pesticide-free will give you the confidence to make the healthiest choices for your body and your family.