Question of the Week: How Important is Organic?
October 16, 2009


Hello, my dears!

TGIF, indeed.

I’m here to discuss one of my most frequent reader questions. So frequent, in fact, that I’ll forgo sharing a reader email and simply paraphrase the many I’ve received: how important is it to shop organic?

On Monday, I included a guest post from the wonderful Melody, who, earlier this year, undertook the incredible task of feeding a family of three on $3.33 a day. In her post, Melody alludes to an ethical quandary with which I’m all too familiar: the struggle to reconcile oneself to not shopping organic 100% of the time.

Let me make one thing clear: in a perfect world, I’d eat only organic food (well, in a perfect world there would only be organic food). From a health standpoint, local and organic foods are most health-generating. They’re also the most ethically sound, as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, we’ve all debated the exceptions: conventional apple from a local farm vs. organic apple from Chile? In these debates, I tend to favor local foods, but I respect both arguments. For the most part, I’ll keep it simple and say this: organic food is preferable to non-organic most of the time, and if I could, I would eat it exclusively.

But this is not a perfect world, and I am not working in a lucrative profession. If you have the means to eat organic and local all the time, terrific: do it. It’s a far worthier investment than fancy clothes, shoes, cars, technology, and the like. What, after all, is more important than what we put in our bodies?

If you are, like me, living on a budget, eating organic 100% of the time (such as the $5.63 red pepper I picked up the other night, and immediately put back when I heard its price) simply isn’t an option. And this is where you must begin a series of internal negotiations. My own such negotiations have yielded this solution:

I always shop organic for the dirty dozen—that is, the vegatbles most prone to pesticide contamination. Those are:

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

If something’s too expensive within this column (like those bell peppers) I either a) try to find it at a farmer’s market, or b) just live without it, and get something else that week.

For those veggies that are least susceptible:

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

I nearly always buy conventional. Once again, though, if I can buy them at the farmer’s market, I will. The farmer’s markets in NYC are—at least in my experience—cheaper than grocery stores, which means that organic produce from them will be less pricey for me, anyway. Score!

For those veggies that appear on either list? It depends. I’ll try to buy everything from the farmer’s market, but if a food I need/want isn’t available, I’ll use my judgment at the health food store about whether to go organic or non. This will often depend on my budget for the week; on weeks when I have more disposable income, I’ll shop organic; if I can’t, I don’t become riddled with guilt. I’m human, and I do my best; a clean lifestyle and positive outlook and physical activity are the greatest gifts I give my health. Organic foods are another great gift, but they’re secondary to those first three, and they are contingent on my means. A few non-organic foods won’t undo all the clean things I put in my body.

It’s true that, as one cleanses over time, one will become more sensitive to non-organic produce. When I started eating raw, I didn’t feel the difference between conventional and organic produce. Now that I’m deeper into cleansing and detoxification, I do feel it when I eat more conventional food than usual (such as on vacation, or in restaurants, or simply because I’m short on cash). Does this suck? Yes. Is it tragic? No. I always know that I’ll be eating more organic foods soon, and that my body will be back to normal.

Contemplating the importance of organic food—like so many other decisions within a healthy life—boils down to personal judgment, balance, and forgiveness. It’s fine to take a stance about eating only organic: certainly, that’s a noble pursuit. But there’s nothing noble (or healthy) about going broke, nor about living outside of one’s means. If you can find a way to support organic and local foods some of the time, all the while recognizing that organic can’t be your single priority all of the time, I think you’re still in good shape. And if you’re living well besides, you will not be poisoning your body enough to undo your hard work towards health.

One more point: I do try to juice only with organic vegetables. A friend once described doing anything but as a “pesticide cocktail,” and I’m afraid that image is now seared in my mind. But I make exceptions for conventional juice when I’m on the road. Juice that’s a little skeevy is better than no juice at all.

Hope this helps to answer a hot-button question, guys. What are your thoughts on shopping organic? How do you find solutions within your own lives?

Speaking of farmer’s markets, and organic food, my first stop post-NOLA was my own farmer’s market at Union Square. Flying is a quick and easy way to deplete one’s system, and I always do my best to eat bushels of greens directly after. On the night of my return, I steamed up some turnips, potatoes and broccoli (all farmer’s market fresh) and decided to serve them along with a very large, very green salad. I hope you all aren’t getting tired of salad recipes, because this one is a winner.

It begins with a sweet, spicy, autumnal agave-mustard vinaigrette. This is poured on top of kale and Swiss chard. The latter is a vegetable I love dearly but rarely eat enough of because I always allow it to be overshadowed by kale, which I prefer. The mixture of both is pretty perfect. Paired with carrots and red cabbage, they’re perfect fall foods. This salad is rich beta-carotene (an immune booster, hence perfect for the after-flight), vitamin K, enzymes, chlorophyll, protein, calcium, vitamin C, fiber…you get the idea. And it’s earthy, grounding, and delicious. Give it a try, and tell me if you like it!


Autumn Greens Salad

For the dressing (this yields 1 ½ cups):

¾ cup olive oil
1/3 cup mustard (organic if you like!)
1/3 cup agave
¼-1/3 cup apple cider vinegar (adjust based on how much acid you like)
¼ tsp. salt

Blend all ingredients in a blender, food processor, or by hand till creamy.

For the salad (this serves 1):

4 cups raw, finely chopped kale and Swiss chard
¾ cup red cabbage, shredded
¾ cup carrots, shredded
½ avocado

Begin by putting your greens into a large bowl. Dress them with ¼ cup dressing and proceed to massage them with your hands, till they’re soft, well-covered, and a little wilted. Add remaining veggies, toss well, and enjoy.


It was a perfect fall salad, and chased the travel blues away.

I hope you’re all off to enjoy a great weekend. Stay tuned for a special event recap early next week!


(Top image courtesy of UA nutrition club’s blog)

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Hi Gena, I have a question for you:

    I understand that we should strive (and I am freakish about this) to always buy Organic. There is a trend to say, “well, if you cannot always afford to buy Organic, at least get a specific list of veg that is not included in the ‘dirty dozen’, however; for the veg and fruit that is non-organic, isn’t it possible for the soil to get the pesticide on it and then when the crops are watered, for that pesticide to soeak into the ground and then be sucked up inside the plant when it is taking in water? Why is this not considered dangerous as well? I do not understand the acceptance of buying non-Organic (people complain of the cost) when cancer and other illnesses come at a MUCH greater cost. =o(

  2. I do buy organic most often but choose local over organic if that is a choice I have to make. I will be printing out this list and taking it with me on my next trip to Whole Foods to save a little cash. We try to buy mostly organic and still only spend $50 to $75 a week on groceries for the two of us. It is hard but we do seem to manage.

  3. thanks for such a great post. i love to buy organic (and try to most of the time), but like you, sometimes the cash flow isnt there, so i go conventional for the D listers (nanners, etc). gena, i think your posts are just wonderful to read.

  4. great post.

    What do you do when your option is local OR organic. For example, we have local apples that are not labeled organic and organic ones from Washington state. I would be inclined to buy the local ones, but would love your thoughts on the subject!

  5. I’m with Teresa! Many farmers cannot afford to comply with all the government regulations to be officially designated as “organic” but many of them do use organic methods as much as possible. So get to know your local growers! Organic and buying local go hand in hand as far as I’m concerned.

  6. Thank you so much for encouraging people to buy organic. In thinking about which organic products to buy, consider this: instead of focusing your organic purchases on a particular group of items, choose organic versions of the products you buy most. Whether that is milk, produce, or personal care products, this will not only help to cut costs, but it will also reduce your exposure to harmful synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and support a system of agricultural management that is great for the planet.

  7. Hi sweetie! Just wanted to say hello to you on this beautiful fall Sunday.

    Your timing in writing about this topic is stunning. I just moved from my beloved Evanston (just north of Chicago) to College Station, Texas. In doing so, I’ve lost Whole Foods and I’m really sad about it. I used to buy tons of my fruits and vegetables in organic form, but now I’m stuck perusing what few organic options I have and then weighing my thoughts about the situation: is non-organic kale better than no kale at all? I’m still trying to buy as much organically as I can, but it’s disappointing. Luckily, things aren’t as bleak in other areas of the supermarkets. Just do the best you can, I tell myself.

    xo and have a great week!

  8. i try to buy as organic as possible. I always go to markets , so it does end up to be cheaper organic food, versus buying organic from a grocery store.
    If not organic, then I defiatly try to go local.

  9. Great post. I totally agree with buying organic when you can and local too! I always strive to support my local farmers (because many of them are now friends), though not all are 100% organic though I trust them. When I do buy at the local stores I try to buy the dirty dozen organic and everything else conventional. I wish it was a perfect world too. One where everyone shops locally (like the do overseas) everyday and organic produce is the only option. I keep dreaming of this perfect world!

  10. Great explanation on organic vs not. I like your thinking and the guidelines you use to make choices. I don’t eat totally raw but try to work it in as much as possible. It is easier to eat gluten and dairy free when I eat raw. Glad I found your blog.

  11. Awesome post Gina! I remember I carried a piece of paper with these two lists copied down on them in my purse wallet for the longest time until I memorized them! I totally agree–get organic if you can because they have less pesticides and so much more nutrition/minerals but don’t worry if you can’t because they’re cost prohibitive or just not available. It’s all good if you’re doing the best you can 🙂

  12. Oh, I should have prefaced that by saying I had arsenic toxicity that I did several months of chelation for. Before that, I didn’t buy organic and most of my diet has been fruits and veggies for my whole life. Yikes! That’s a lot of pesticides!

  13. Great post! I try to make sure everything I buy is organic when permitting. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about money right now because my parents help me with everything. I feel VERY lucky!

  14. Ugh, more like Question of the Myentirelife. Ever since I got heavy into nutrition and whatnot, I’ve had to deal with guilt over buying conventional, which has progressed into guilt over buying canned and even frozen (at one point I truly believed I’d never buy anything canned or frozen again–ha), and it’s a feeling I wish would go away! Usually what gets my perspective back is just thinking of how well I feed myself compared to the average SADsack, but hey, if your standards as outlined above were the universal gold standard, then I’m doing REALLY well indeed.

    Dirty dozen is always purchased organic (though the effing $5 red peppers plague me too – wtf?), and as for the farmer’s market, I try to relax there because so many of those Union Sq. farmers are just not certified but use minimal spray. As far as I’m concerned, I have a free pass to choose anything on that plaza. And I often substitute fresh produce where recipes call for canned, so stepping back and considering how much effort I put into eating clean on a regular basis, I’m going to go ahead and allow myself a food prep shortcut every once in a while, however it arrives on my plate. Hmph.

    External internal monologue over.

  15. Gena! I don’t mean to sound sappy but I do often look to you as the voice of reason in terms of healthy living – and you have done it once again! You’re amazing. I love your blog and the issues you choose to discuss. I struggle with decisions over conventional and local vs. imported and organic. I sometimes/often feel guilty about non-organic purchases but this entry really made me feel better. Thanks for this blog.

  16. No, never tired of yummy salad recipes! I love swiss chard, am even growing it in my garden (unfortunately, there is a buggy that seems to love it more than me, so I’m getting his seconds). What a great idea for what is left of my chard.
    I must tell you – my 2 year old son loves your dressings. They’re always a hit with him for dipping veggies or anything else on his plate.

    This is a great post, as I definitely struggle with the organic issue. This is the first place I have lived where organic is not readily available. We do have a Whole Foods, but even their selection is limited and of course, it’s the shop that is farthest away. We have lovely open air produce stands that do offer some local produce, but 0% organic offerings. So I try to buy organic for the “dirty dozen” as much as I can and just get over it for the rest. Until I become a prolific gardener (nowhere close!) I’m just going to have to make do. A good point that I read in Eat to Live (Furhman) is that the studies showing the disease fighting powers of veggies and fruits often came from people eating conventional produce. Better to eat your veggies than to go to the processed foods. Still, I wish that organics were the norm – so much better for the land and our bodies.

  17. I WISH I could buy organic, even occasionally, but it is NOT EVEN AN OPTION here in Saudi Arabia. There just is not ANY organic produce. It horrifies me to think of the things that I am eating because in this region laws are a….vague suggestion. There is no such thing as consumer safety or any system that makes companies at all accountable to their customers. NOT AT ALL. It actually makes me angry to think of it.

    So, pour what you want on your crops and sell them for an obscene price. That is what happens here.

    As a health conscious vegan the majority of my food is fresh veg and fruit, and it is just terrifying to imagine the amount of pesticides on the food my family eats. UGH.

  18. I shop the exact same way! The dirty dozen is always organic for me, and everything else is all about the price.

    I love the salad recipe! Lovely flavors perfect for fall!

  19. Thanks so much for approaching this topic! I often feel conflicted when I got to the market and pick up a bunch of vegetables and have to go conventional due to price. But can the pesticide potential possibly be worse for me than the chemical garbage in processed foods? If I have to choose between a salad made with conventionally grown vegetables and a Big Mac or Lean Cuisine, you can bet I’m getting those greens and whipping up one of your amazing dressings!

    Thanks again for a great post on an important topic.

    Have a wonderful weekend!!

  20. Thank you for putting this out there. The average person who is just getting into high raw, raw, vegetarian/veganism, or even just trying to be healthier often gets WAY too hung up on the organic status. I too prefer local over anything else. And for 5 yrs in San Diego had a year round CSA. There were times of the year that even you coulnd’t eat all the kale that I got and times of the year where I actually was sick of strawberries (can’t believe I wrote that!) but it was what was local, seasonal, and grown within 25 miles of my house. It wasn’t certified organic b/c of the $ to certify as you well know is alot, but it was organic and nothing beat it. Especially in So Cal. Where everything grows pretty much all year round.

    That said, I actually buy out of season, conventional foods off the dirty dozen that arent organic b/c I really crave them and so I feel for me, it’s better to buy them and deal with the non-organic status than it is to forego. Case in point…pears, grapes, and peppers. Not only am I feeding me but also my toddler and who would tell a small child, no, you cannot eat your veggies. They are not organic? I guess some people would but for me I prefer to keep instilling the “fruits & veggies of all kinds” are good for us logic. I could write a book but will stop and just say, great post!!

    And the honey…could you clarify your thoughts on vegans and honey? Some people freak out, I don’t. I know you will say that b/c it’s local you feel better about it. Or maybe you won’t, but if you have time, fill us in on that one. I dont go out of my way to consume honey these days, but I also dont avoid it in a dressing or something, either.

    TGIF and happy weekend to you Gena!

  21. I just want to point out that while corn is on the “least contaminated” list, it is one of the most likely foods to be Genetically Modified. Ick!

  22. I’m a huge proponent of buying locally (whether food or non-food for that matter), so this is very important to me. Of course, not everything I buy at the farmer’s market is “certified organic” but the cool thing is that you can talk to the farmer and they will tell you exactly how they treat their crops. Most don’t use any chemicals or pesticides, while some use different sorts of “natural” fertilizers. It’s cool, because good luck asking the guy at the grocery store how your produce was grown!

    I totally agree that it’s all about personal preferences, and what your food budget can afford. And like I commented in Melody’s post, shopping at the last half hour of the farmer’s market can score you some great deals. It’s not ALWAYS more expensive to shop at the FM’s as it is commonly believed.

    Thanks for this great post and I’m excited to see and learn from what others have to say. Oh and I also learned very quickly after eating locally and organic that your body (and taste buds) totally know the difference.

  23. Thank you for your insight on this issue. I always purchase organic when it’s an available option, paying special attention to the “Dirty Dozen” list

    Ahh, the farmer’s market at Union Square – you are the one who introduced me to its heavenly existence!! 😀

    That dressing recipe and salad look and sound INCREDIBLE – I definitely would like to try it.

    Looking forward to your special event recap!

  24. Great post. I try to buy organic as much as I can, and I am not good at noticing prices so I am sure I often spend ridiculous amounts. I have a hard time finding organic versions of some vegetables, and those I will get conventional (for some reason I rarely find organic cucumbers that aren’t tiny). I do get conventional bananas, mangoes and avocados.