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Go Green or Bust? When to Buy Organic

Pesticides, parabens, phthalates, oh my! You know you should go green, but living eco-friendly 24/7 can be pretty rough on your wallet. (Little known fact: "Organic" is Latin for "expensive.") The truth is, while there are a few arenas in life where you should shell out for the greenest label possible (spinach, we're looking at you!), there are also products you can safely skip. Read on and let us navigate you through the eco-green waters.

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Unpeelable Produce

Verdict: Go green

Fruits and veggies that can't be peeled (or where you usually eat the skin) are typically coated with insect repellants -- the USDA has found 28 pesticides on conventionally grown potatoes, 39 on strawberries, and 48 on grapes and apples. Unfortunately, the substances that keep bugs off your berries have been linked to cancer, lung disease, birth defects, reproductive problems, and more, so opt organic when purchasing leafy greens, apples, potatoes, and the like; they're grown with nonsynthetic pest controls. (Always be sure to avoid the Dirty Dozen -- the most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies.)

Can't afford organic produce? Try this make-your-own wash, from Jackie Newgent, RD, author of Big Green Cookbook: Mix 1 cup each water and white distilled vinegar, 2 teaspoons each fresh lemon juice and baking soda. (Foaming may occur.) Spray and scrub with a produce brush, then rinse to shower off some pesticide residue.

You can also try shopping your local farmers' market for hidden organic gems. "Many farmers follow environmentally friendly practices but haven't completed the certification process to be considered officially organic," says Newgent. Just ask Farmer Bill if he uses chemical pesticides -- you might snag an undercover eco-friendly deal!

Get the full list for the Dirty Dozen >>

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Produce with a Thick Peel or Rind

Verdict: Be mainstream

The Environmental Working Group, who created the Dirty Dozen list, have also ID'd the Clean 15: the fruits and vegetables least likely to have pesticide residues. When it comes to onions, avocado, asparagus, eggplant, mangoes, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and more, you can feel good about skipping the organic label and saving some dough.

Get the full list for the Clean 15 >>

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Animal Products

Verdict: Go green

Pick your protein wisely. Organically raised cows, chickens, and pigs are not given antibiotics (which may pave the way to drug-resistance in humans), their feed has not been genetically tweaked, and they may be treated in a more humane way, says Newgent. (Interestingly, chickens and pigs raised in the U.S. are never given hormones, rendering a "hormone-free" label relatively meaningless.) Besides protecting yourself from potential superbugs, you might be sparing your waistline: Organic meat is brimming with Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), thought to promote weight loss and lessen your risk of cancer and heart disease; organic milk may contain higher amounts of health-promoting nutrients like beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids, along with CLA.

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Verdict: Be mainstream

If organic meat and chicken are too pricey, Newgent suggests veering toward a plant-based diet; nonorganic beans are way cheap, offering excellent protein and fiber bang for your buck -- two things most women don't get enough of. Buy them in a bag and soak them yourself to avoid a toxic chemical called Bisphenol A, or BPA, found in some can linings and linked to everything from cancer to infertility. (Or try beans from Eden Foods and Amy's Kitchen -- both brands use BPA-free cans.)

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Verdict: Go green

Just when you finally devoted yourself to slathering on SPF, new reports are emerging (but have yet to be confirmed) that suggest certain common chemicals in sun block, such as oxybenzone, may cause a slew of health problems of their own, from hormonal disruption to free radical damage in skin. But don't throw in the beach towel just yet: If you're concerned, Kasprowicz recommends buying broad-spectrum sunscreens that rely on physical blockers like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are not absorbed into the skin, rather than conventional sun protection products that contain chemical ingredients that do seep into skin, such as benzones, amino benzoic acid, and cinnamates. Try Kiss My Face Natural Mineral Formula SPF 40 ($16.99; or Coppertone Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 ($8.99;

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Nail Polish

Verdict: Be mainstream

There's a reason you need a surgical mask to breathe in nail salons. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the polish has traditionally contained a "toxic trio" of health-threatening ingredients: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde, and toluene. DBP adds flexibility and sheen, formaldehyde is a nail hardener, and toluene imparts a smooth finish. These same chemicals have also been shown to affect the reproductive and central nervous system; formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. So why are we assuring you it's safe to go mainstream? A number of popular polish manufacturers, including OPI, Orly, and Sally Hansen, have retinkered their products to remove the toxic trio. Your salon doesn't carry those brands? BYOP -- Bring Your Own Polish!

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Shampoo and Body Wash

Verdict: Go green

Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate -- the ingredients that help you suds up your tresses -- can irritate skin and have even been linked with (but not proven to cause) cancer, so pick products with an "SLS-free" label. You'll be protecting the environment clean, too: "The products you use in the shower get rinsed off, going down the drain and into waterways," notes Mike Morgan, Whole Body Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, Midwest region. Buying "clean" products keeps harsh chemicals not only off your skin, but also out of streams and rivers.

At Whole Foods, any product with the Premium Body Care seal is free of parabens, SLS, fragrance, and preservatives.

Remember that just having the word "organic" somewhere on the label -- or even in the name itself -- does not guarantee that a product is entirely organic. Look for the USDA Organic Seal or for the term "70% organic." Cosmetics and personal care products that are between 95% and 100% organic may display the USDA Organic Seal, while those that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may use the term "Made with organic ingredients." Those with less than 70% organic ingredients can list individual organic ingredients.

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Eye Makeup

Verdict: Be mainstream

"Mascara and eyeliner are probably safe places to go conventional," says Lisa Archer, National Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "They're only touching a very small part of your skin and you're not ingesting or inhaling anything." Just steer clear of products containing fragrance or petroleum distillates, solvents that have been linked to cancer.

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Verdict: DIY green

Chances are, you've got some pretty stellar natural lotions sitting in your pantry at home. Olive, almond, and other oils can sub for moisturizer -- that's what Jessica Cassity, 33, of Portland, does. "I only use coconut oil on my skin," she says. "I'm trying to follow the Ayurvedic (ancient Indian) principle of 'only put on your body ingredients you'd put in your mouth.' I've been amazed at how much better it is at nourishing my skin than lotion, and I feel better using it than designer organic lotions that still have a long list of suspicious-sounding ingredients -- it's sort of like eating spinach instead of a processed spinach dip."

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Countertop Cleaners

Verdict: Go green

Besides releasing irritating chemicals like formaldehyde and chlorine into the air where they'll be inhaled, chances are your food will at some point touch these surfaces (a pineapple chunk falls off your fork en route from plate to mouth; you pick it up and eat it), making it worthwhile to be vigilant about ingredients, says Sophie Uliano author of Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life. Look for the green and white USDA Organic Seal or products that use nontoxic ingredients, like Method or Safeway's Bright Green line.

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Air Fresheners

Verdict: DIY green

Traditional air fresheners contain a plethora of toxic chemicals, including neurotoxic phthalates. Uliano says you can skip the pricey eco-friendly air fresheners and candles and rely on pure essential oils: Just add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to an aromatherapy diffuser.

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Verdict: Be mainstream (just shop smart!)

Is "Does this shirt make me look earth-friendly?" the new "Do these pants make my butt look big?" When it comes to clothing, an "organic" label means it was made out of cotton or wool that was not sprayed with pesticides or fungicides. "But a good spin through the washing machine will remove most of the residue, so if you're worried about nasty chemicals rubbing onto your skin, you can safely shop conventional and just clean the outfit thoroughly before wearing," Uliano says. That's what Robin Immerman Gruen, 35, of Chicago, does: "When it comes to shopping organic, clothing is one area where I don't freak out too much. I figure if I wash the outfit before I wear it, it shouldn't cause too much trouble. I'm more likely to spend my money on organic fruits where you eat the outside peel, like apples, or with eco-friendly countertop spray to keep my child's high chair clean."

More concerned about what Mother Earth will be wearing in 10 years? Patronize stores that sell sustainable clothing made from recycled fibers, like Patagonia and American Apparel. "You'll make a powerful impact on the environment without leaving the store feeling cash-strapped," Uliano promises. Still nervous? H&M and Wal-Mart sell affordable organic options.

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Baby Bottles

Verdict: Go green

Babies and young children, with their rapidly growing brains and other organs, are more susceptible to the nasty health effects of BPA. Thankfully, most baby bottles, plastic toys, and pacifiers from reputable manufacturers are now BPA-free. Look for the packaging to explicitly say "BPA-free," or for the recycling labels #1, #2, or #4 on the bottom (avoid #7, which may contain BPA).

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Verdict: Be mainstream

Considering the average baby plows through 10 diapers a day (that's almost 300 per month!), plenty of environmentally conscious new moms get caught up in the disposable-versus-cloth diaper debate. But the fact is, "cloth diapering is so energy- and water-intensive, it might not be better for the environment," Uliano admits. One option that blends the ease of disposables with the green of reusables: gDiapers, which pair reusable diaper covers with disposable inserts.

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Baby Skin Products

Verdict: Go green

Protect that deliciously soft skin with lotions and shampoos that are free of parabens and phthalates. An easy tip-off: If it has the word "fragrance" on the label, "that's code word for potentially harmful chemicals," Uliano says, so look for natural fragrances. Seventh Generation's Wee Generation products use olive oil to moisturize and essential oils to naturally add fragrance.

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Baby Food

Verdict: Go green

When it comes to first foods, organic produce is safer for infants as pesticides tend to be most concentrated in the skins of fresh fruits and vegetables, says Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, Washington, DC-based dietitian and expectant mom. "Those pesticides may build up in a baby because they usually eat a more limited number of foods and they eat more food for their body size compared to adults." Don't get too freaked about jarred food, though: "Conventional baby food may actually have lower pesticide levels than fresh, even when they're not labeled 'organic,' because they don't have to use pretty-looking fruits and vegetables." Scritchfield notes than from a nutritional standpoint, no large studies have proven that organic produce pack in more nutrients than nonorganic. No time to steam and puree your own fruits and veggies? Try an organic brand like Plum Organics or Earth's Best.

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What do you think? Review this slideshow!

kedecker2 wrote:

sarahb78etc is exactly right!! In the US, everything is inspected and has to pass antibiotics testing - there is no allowable level that is significant!! Washing fruits & vegetables before use will remove any pesticides that were used to raise a more palatable produce!!

7/7/2013 09:46:07 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

I am not putting down either side of the discussion of whether or not to buy organic, because ultimately, that is your choice. I am just providing a counter argument supported with scientific facts. If you have questions about these topics, go to reliable sources like the USDA website or feedstuffs foodlink at Scientific data supporting these facts can also be found in articles in journals like the Journal of Animal Science.

7/3/2013 08:16:07 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

Animals are no different from us in this respect. But the kicker is, when organic producers have a sick animal, they cannot treat it with the medicine that it needs to get better without losing their organic certification, so either the animal suffers, or the producer must make other management decisions. This does not mean that these farmers are bad people, by any means. In many ways, they are smart entrepreneurs for taking advantage of consumer demand.

7/3/2013 08:15:12 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

As for organic livestock production, you may believe that these animals are treated more humanely than those reared on conventional facilities. In reality, most conventional livestock producers treat their animals just as well, if not better than organic producers. Organic producers don't treat animals with antibiotics you say? While this is true, what about when an animal gets sick? When you get sick, what do you do? You go do the doctor and get medicine to make you better.

7/3/2013 08:13:53 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

In order to meet the consumption demands of the increasing population with no increase in input resources, we must use technology to our advantage in order to continue to provide consumers with enough food.

7/3/2013 08:12:48 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

The use of rbST and all other technology in livestock is actually a good thing and those that are proponents of being "green" should think carefully before you decide otherwise. Technology (all advances in the world in general) has made huge advances in the past 60 years. The efficiency of our daily activities has increased tremendously because of technological advances. This has enabled the world population to grow to 7 billion and the growth is not expected to stop in the future.

7/3/2013 08:12:16 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

Thus, all labels claiming "antibiotic-free" are essentially useless because all of these products are inspected and are indeed antibiotic free. Any trace of antibiotic reside renders the product unsalable.

7/3/2013 08:11:43 AM Report Abuse
sarahb783237 wrote:

I would first like to start off by saying that livestock in the United States are NOT fed hormones on a daily basis. The chickens you are referring to have been genetically selected to have a faster growth rate and thus grow faster because of this, not because they are fed hormones. As for antibiotics, all meat and milk is inspected for traces of antibiotics before it goes to the grocery store.

7/3/2013 08:09:59 AM Report Abuse
hacketj1 wrote:

Cows and chickens are in fact fed hormones in the United States. Factory Farms grow chickens from birth to slaughter in 42 days, and have altered some breeds to grow breast meat as much as 5x larger than they originally did. I'm sure not all farms do this (hopefully), my info is based on several farms in the upstate and finger lakes regions of New York.

9/8/2012 11:16:37 AM Report Abuse

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