Organic Food: What’s Worth Your Money & What Isn’t

Organic Food: What’s Worth Your Money & What Isn’t

Organic food! Many people believe it tastes better, is more nutritious, and is generally better for you. While some, or all, of this may be true, organic products also tend to be a bit more expensive. While not always more expensive (some do cost less), organic fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat can sometimes run you up to double or triple the price of conventionally farmed foods.

Many families wonder if the health benefits of organic foods warrant the higher grocery bills, and they also wonder if it really helps contribute to more sustainable practices for the Earth.

The truth is that some organic foods are worth the price at the supermarket and some aren’t, but there's no one-size its all answer for everyone. It all comes down to why you choose organic foods and the intention that goes into that decision. Thankfully, there are cheaper ways to eat organic, regardless of the 'why' — and if you’re a gardener, or inclined to give it a whirl, you could even grow your own! Here, we’ll take a look at some of the things that make buying organic worth the higher price tag.

What Terms and Labels Mean

Let’s examine the grocery shopping first. According to Organic.org, the term “organic” means that, "Organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation." and "Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones." As you may already know, pesticides can be a health hazard.

The World Health Organization reports that three million instances of pesticide poisonings occur annually. A quarter of a million of these are fatal.

Unfortunately for consumers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has several levels of labels for organic food. This causes consumer confusions and makes it easier for brands to lead customers without them realizing it.

This is just one reason that paying attention to labels is so very important. The first gets a “100 percent Organic” label, meaning that it was made with 100 percent organic ingredients. The term “Organic” on a product means that it contains 95 percent to 99 percent organic ingredients. The organic content of products bearing a “Made With Organic Ingredients” label must have 70 percent to 94 percent organic ingredients. Clearly you can see where the trouble with labeling and quality begins to come in.

Beware of False Labeling

Sadly, some companies package products that are not very organic with misleading labels. When you shop, make sure the products you buy use the labels above, and read the ingredients! Anything that doesn’t use these exact labels and instead uses terms like “good from the Earth” or “all-natural” may not be organic... or even all that natural.

Similarly, anything packaged using natural earth tones as the colors, or pictures of mountains and rivers, isn’t necessarily organic. While this makes obvious sense, it may just mean that the company has spent big bucks to make you feel secure and wants to grab a few dollars from people who want to eat healthily and will assume this packaging means that the products within are healthier or even organic.

Does Organic Equal Healthier?

One way to look at whether organic foods are worth your grocery dollar is to consider their health benefits.

Studies have shown that organic produce is not necessarily more nutritious than regular food. If you buy a regular orange, for example, it will likely have just as much Vitamin C as an organic orange.

There are differences in pesticide residue and chemicals, though. In these studies, organic produce was nearly one-third less likely to have pesticide residue than regular produce. Organic livestock was also one-third less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Organic produce has a higher level of a healthy fatty acid that can fight heart disease, and higher levels of antioxidants that can fight cancer. Simply put, healthier foods are more capable of supporting and nourishing a healthy body.

Pesticide Contamination: The Most and the Least

Since pesticide residue is a problem, you may want to focus on foods that have the most risk of pesticide contamination and buy them organically. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) refers to the twelve most contaminated food, per pesticide residue load, as the “dirty dozen.” These fruits and vegetables are tested and ranked each year, providing consumers with knowledge and a bit of a cheat-sheet on what items are most urgent to buy organic. Apples top this list, and have for many years.

They are (in order):

  • Apples
  • Peaches 
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Spinach
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Snap Peas (imported)
  • Potatoes

By the same token, they also rank the least contaminated by pesticide load. If you are concerned about the price of organics, you might consider buying these in the conventional produce section.

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn*
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet Peas (frozen)
  • Onions 
  • Asparagus
  • Mangos
  • Papayas*
  • Kiwi
  • Eggplant 
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet Potatoes

EWG notes that "A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from GE seedstock. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid GE produce."

How Does Your Garden Grow?

One way to eat organically and cheaply is to grow your own organic garden. If you can grow any of the “most contaminated” foods pesticide-free, you’re a double winner!

If you are new to gardening, or the idea of homesteading, there is a wealth of information available online.

Here are just a few favorites:

When shopping for garden products, the term “for organic production” on a product means it can be used to grow certified organic crops. Because the USDA only certifies food and food products, products used for organic growing are reviewed by a third-party certified, the Organic Materials Review Institute.

Organic food can be expensive, and is not always worth the price depending on immediate budgetary confinements, but knowledge is power.

With the right information, you can make an informed decision on which organic products to choose and feel confident in the 'why' behind those choices. Here’s to your health!