So what is Organic? Iowa State University has provided the following definition:
According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), organic agriculture is defined as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, or enhance ecological harmony. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people." (NOSB, 1997) The term "organic" is defined by law, as opposed to the labels "natural" and "eco-friendly," which may imply that some organic methods were used in the production of the foodstuff, but this label does not guarantee complete adherence to organic practices as defined by a law. Most "natural" products do not contain synthetic products, but may have been provided conventional (synthetic chemicals used in production) food or feed (as in "natural" beef). source
Keep that label trick in mind when you go shopping the next time. You specifically want to look for the word Organic. By law, in the US, foods labeled as organic must meet the appropriate criteria.
The Environmental Working Group, has published this year's EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides on their website. This guide provides us with the Dirty Dozen - the top 12 produce items that we should buy organically - as well as the Clean Fifteen - the top 15 items that are OK to not buy organic. This list may come in handy for you as it can easily identify what you might want to splurge on (the extra few cents) to buy without pesticides and chemicals and what items you can save on and buy non-organic.
There is also an awesome video from CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta where he tours a grocery store (Kroger!) and explains a little more about which produce, the costs and why its good to buy organic. He mentions that most important thing to me which is that the pesticide levels that are measures on produce are the tested levels AFTER the foods have been power-washed. To me, that says that my little scrub job at home isn't going to help much and I for sure want to buy any items on the dirty dozen list organically.
Looking for more info? Check out the rest of the EWG website as well as last year's CNN Special Report: Toxic America