As if “What do I eat?” isn’t a big enough question in itself yet another question surfaces, “What do I choose, organic or conventional?” Here are some facts to help you make the best choices for you.

What Does "Organic" Mean?

Conventional means that the produce was grown with the addition of pesticides and/or other chemicals during the growing and harvesting process.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) established strict standards in Octorber 2002 for any food labeled as "organic." Organic means that the produce was grown and harvested without the addition or any pesticides or chemicals.Organic foods are grown with the environment in mind and preserve natural resources like soil and water. For meat products, organic means the animals were given organic feed, free of antibiotics and growth hormones, and had access to the outdoors, including fields for grazing.

Here is a chart from The Mayo Clinic defining some of the differences between organic and conventional practices:

Conventional

Organic

Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth.

Apply natural fertilizers such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.

Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease.

Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests or disease.

Use herbicides to manage weeds.

Rotate crops, till, hand weed, or mulch to manage weeds.

Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth.

Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing to help minimize disease.

Source: Mayo Clinic

Organic certification is regulated by the government and can be an expensive process to go through. For this reason, it is possible that smaller local farms will not have the certification even if they follow organic farming practices.

Do not spend more money to purchase organic “junk food” like snack foods. Instead purchase certified organic items that are the most nutritionally dense like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources.

There are certain fruit and vegetable grown conventionally that contain more pesticides to produce a higher crop yield. The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of those that are the “dirtiest” (grown with the most pesticides) and the “cleanest” (grown with the least pesticides). Here is the latest list:

The Dirty Dozen +

(Best to buy organic when possible)

The Clean 15

(Lowest in pesticides. These can be purchased conventionally in an effort to save money)

  1. Apples

1. Asparagus

  1. Celery

2. Avocados

  1. Cherry Tomatoes

3. Cabbage

  1. Cucumbers

4. Cantaloupe

  1. Grapes

5. Sweet corn

  1. Snap peas- imported

6. Eggplant

  1. Nectarines- imported

7. Grapefruit

  1. Peaches

8. Kiwi

  1. Potatoes

9. Mangoes

  1. Spinach

10. Cauliflower

  1. Strawberries

11. Onions

  1. Sweet Bell Peppers

12. Papaya

  1. Kale/Collard Greens

13. Pineapple

14. Hot peppers

14. Sweet Peas- frozen

15. Sweet Potatoes

Source: Environmental Working Group

Should I Only Eat Organic Food?

There is no definitive research that says "organic" food is significantly more nutritious than conventional food. Organic foods usually cost more, may have a shorter shelf life, and may be smaller in size than conventional foods. If you are concerned about additives in your food or farming styles, you may choose to buy budget-friendly organic foods, buy locally grown foods, or choose the organic option when it comes to the "dirty dozen." The most important message: eat a variety of foods, follow food safety guidlines when preparing food, and don't skimp on other important foods just to save for a small amount of expensive, organic foods.

The Luxury of Buying Local

Shop locally for produce. You will often be able to get it at its peak point of freshness and it has not had a chance to lose nutrient content during travel. Most produce sold at local stands and farmers markets was picked within the past few days. It is also cheaper to buy produce from a local farmer in some cases depending on what is available and how much.You can even ask the farmer when it was picked and about their growing practices.

Another option is to purchase a share of a farm. This is referred to as a CSA. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. A CSA program gives you the opportunity to pay for your share of produce ahead of time and the farm supplies you your share (a box of fruit and vegetables) at a set interval usually weekly or bi-weekly. This may be the most economical way to eat organic produce. It is often cheaper than buying individual items at the grocery store. To find a farmers market or CSA program where you live, visit www.localharvest.org

If your primary concern is food safety, read Food Safety During Cancer Treatment to learn how to safely prepare and store food.