What Shopping Organic Means For You

Woman at grocery store
Woman at grocery store.

Getty Images / d3sign

Every time you go to the grocery store, you are likely bombarded by a wide array of options. From varying brands and alternative types of foods to different methods of how the food itself is raised, produced, and manufactured—your options are endless. 

One of the biggest decisions consumers find themselves making at the grocery store is whether or not to buy organic. While the term “organic” has garnered quite the hype over the last few decades, it is not always clear to consumers what exactly they are gaining by purchasing food with this label. Plus, there is the fact that organic is often more expensive than conventional food items.

With all of these things to consider when deciding whether or not shopping organic is right for you, it is important to know exactly what organic means, how you and your family might benefit, and how to shop for organic in a way that makes sense. Below, we cut through some of the clutter to help you make sense of what it actually means to shop organic.

What Does Organic Mean?

When foods are labeled organic, it essentially refers to how it was made or grown. For instance, if you are purchasing organic meats, poultry, eggs, or dairy products, organic means that it was made without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

Meanwhile, if you are buying organic fruits and vegetables, organic means they were grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. In order for a product to receive the USDA organic label, the producer or grower must have been inspected by a government-approved certifier to ensure that these standards are met.

While many people associate organic food with healthier food, it is important to recognize that this label does not correlate with health at all. In fact, when a food is advertised as organic, this tells consumers more about how the food was produced versus how healthy it is, explains Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Dr. Laing also points out that there are three types of organic claims on food—each with different meaning. These include 100% organic, organic, and made with organic ingredients.

Types of Organic Labels

  • 100% Organic: Products that are completely organic or made from solely organic ingredients qualify for this claim and the USDA organic seal.
  • Organic: Products in which at least 95% of ingredients are organic qualify for this claim and the USDA organic seal. In this category, the product and ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of ingredients in these products are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used on these foods, but the phrase "made with organic ingredients" may appear on its packaging.

Benefits of Shopping Organic

While shopping organic is a highly personal decision in which you need to consider your family's goals and budget, there are several benefits to shopping organic if you decide it is right for you. Here are some of the more notable advantages.

May Offer Less Exposure to Harmful Chemicals

Perhaps the biggest benefit of purchasing and consuming organic foods is that it reduces your exposure to potentially harmful and cancer-causing chemicals found in the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used in conventional farming.

In fact, one study found that organic foods have been shown to have lower levels of toxic metabolites. This includes heavy metals such as cadmium, synthetic fertilizer, and pesticide residues.

"Shopping organic means less consumption of chemical pesticides that don't belong in the body," explains Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT, a functional dietitian. "Generally speaking, the less pesticides we consume, the less burden this places on our liver, which can make a big difference on overall quality of life over time."

May Have Higher Nutritional Content

One older study has shown that organic foods tend to have higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals when compared to conventional alternatives. In fact, researchers noted that reviews of multiple studies have demonstrated that organic foods provide significantly greater levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than non-organic varieties of the same foods.

And even though there is little variation between organic and conventional food products in terms of macro nutritional value (protein, fat, carbohydrate and dietary fiber), some researchers have noted other compositional differences. Some examples include higher antioxidant concentrations (particularly polyphenols) in organic crops, improved fatty acid profiles in organic meats as well as increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic dairy products.

That said, Dr. Laing points out, that differences in nutrition, as well as taste and appearance can occur among all kinds of fruits and vegetables, whether or not they are organic. In fact, a number of factors that can influence their nutritional makeup include being grown in diverse seasons, weather conditions, and soils.

May Be Better for the Environment

Organic products can be better for the environment, says Emily Tills, RDN, a virtual nutrition coach in New York. In fact, the pesticides used in organic farming are more natural and less erosive to the ground and dirt, giving you better nutrients within the soil.

For instance, an older study found that organic farmland had eight more inches of topsoil on average than non-organic farm land. Meanwhile, another study indicates that organic farming may be a better option than other forms of farming because it reduces pollution, conserves water, reduces soil erosion, increases soil fertility, and uses less energy.

Smart Shopping Tips 

If you’re hoping to shop organic, but do not know where to start, we have put together some tips to help you get started. These expert-approved recommendations can help you make smart decisions as you navigate the grocery-store aisles in search of organic foods for your family. 

Get Familiar With Nutrition Labels

Not all organic labels are created equal, so it is important to read the product packaging to understand exactly what you are getting. For example, foods labeled 100% organic mean that the food itself contains only organic ingredients.

If it says “made with organic ingredients,” however, it means that the product is only made with at least 70% certified organic ingredients (not including salt or water).  If you aren’t sure if something is organic when looking at produce, you can always use the price look up (PLU) sticker for help. 

“Organic produce contains five-digit code beginning with a nine whereas conventionally grown produce contains four digits,” explains Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a New Jersey-based dietitian and author of "Belly Fat Diet for Dummies."

Prioritize Highly Porous Produce

Certain produce may contain more levels of harmful chemicals than others. For this reason, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a Clean Fifteen and a Dirty Dozen guide each year.

The Clean Fifteen list indicates which non-organic fruits and vegetables contain the least amount of pesticide residue whereas the Dirty Dozen list indicates the non-organic fruits and vegetables with the highest amounts. These lists can help guide consumers on when they should buy organic and when they can instead opt for conventional without exposing themselves to high pesticide levels.

For example, strawberries, spinach, kale, apples, and grapes are porous fruits and veggies that should be purchased organically, per the EWG's lists. Meanwhile sweet corn, asparagus, mushrooms, and mangoes, may be be fine to purchase conventionally.

Shop in Season

To save money, Lindsay Tullis, CHC, a health coach at Mighty Health, recommends shopping for seasonal fruits and veggies, when shopping for organic foods. Fruits and vegetables in season tend to be cheaper and more accessible than foods that are not currently in season.

For example, strawberries are in season in the summertime, which is when they tend to taste the best and are also often on sale. Meanwhile, squash is in season in the fall and asparagus is in season in the spring.

Inquire About Local Farmers' Practices

If you’re lucky enough to live near a farmer’s market, or perhaps attend one while on vacation, ask the farmers about their farming methods. Some farmers use a combination of organic and conventional methods, and, though it’s possible that organic farming methods were used by the farmer, they might not be legally able to use the 100% organic or organic labels on their food, explains Dr. Laing.

“Becoming a certified organic grower can be prohibitive to farms due to cost, even if they technically meet the standards of organic production,” she adds. 

Buy in Bulk

Buying ready-to-eat such as pre-chopped or peeled organic produce is always more expensive than buying it whole, notes Volpe. For this reason, she always recommends buying organic produce in bulk or, at the very least, always avoiding the cut-up versions in favor of the entire fruit to save money. Additionally, she points out that some organic produce may be worth buying frozen if shopping in bulk, since organic food goes bad faster.

“Buying some frozen options in bulk can help reduce the need for multiple grocery trips a week, especially for those cooking for an entire family,” she adds.

A Word From Verywell 

The decision to buy organic is often a personal one, but it’s clear to see that there are significant benefits worth considering. At the end of the day, buying organic is going to cost you more at the grocery store, so it may pay to follow the EWG’s Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists, which can indicate which produce is worth shopping organic for and which is not. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is shopping organic worth it?

    Shopping organic certainly has its benefits, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have to shop organic for every single item on your grocery list in order to reap those benefits. Shopping organic on some things can lower your exposure to a myriad of potentially harmful chemicals, including pesticides.

  • How can I buy organic cheaper?

    Just like conventional foods, organic foods vary in price—and, much of the time, where you shop makes all the difference. For example, if you’re shopping at a small boutique grocery store, you are going to pay more than if you were shopping for groceries at a wholesale store where you can more easily buy in bulk and score competitive pricing. 

  • Should you buy organic eggs?

    Eggs boasting the “organic” label are required to have fed the chickens an all-organic diet free from pesticides or fertilizers and are also required to be free to roam and have access to the outdoors. What’s more, research has shown that organic eggs may contain higher nutrients than their conventional counterparts, especially when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids.

10 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic 101: Understanding the "Made with Organic***" Label.

  8. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2022 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

  9. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eggstra! Eggstra! Learn all about them.

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By Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is a Boston-based freelance editor, writer, and content strategist. She received her BA in journalism from Northeastern University and has more than a decade of experience working as an on-staff editor for various publications.