Organic Food: Worth the Cost?

Discover why organic food is worth the premium

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Phrases like "organic food" and "natural ingredients" get tossed around a lot these days. But before any food item can honestly call itself organic food, it has to meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- only then can it wear the coveted green and white USDA Organic label.

What makes organic food different is the way it's grown and produced. For example, only fertilizers like compost or manure can be used; chemical fertilizers are out, as are most synthetic herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics.

Animals must be raised on organic feed and have access to the outdoors.

Real Organic Food, or Mostly Organic?

There is some wiggle room in the USDA's National Organic Program, however. Certain foods can sport the USDA label even though up to 5 percent of their ingredients are non-organic. Organic beer, for example, can carry the USDA label even though it is made with non-organic hops. Foods with at least 70% organic ingredients can indicate that they are "Made with Organic Ingredients," but cannot carry the organic label.

There's been some controversy over the USDA's handling of the organic certification program, and some healthy-food advocates protest the influence that major food manufacturers have over the program and their efforts to weaken the organic standard.

Organic milk used to come from cows with little or no access to open grazing land, but the USDA now enforces an open-grazing policy.

Some organic fruit growers have claimed the USDA lets other growers to bend the rules, allowing synthetic ingredients in fruit labeled organic. The USDA has been sued several times for failing to adequately enforce or maintain organic standards.

What Is Organic Food Not?

While there are many benefits to buying and eating organic food, it's not perfect.

Organic food is also:

Not cheaper: Expect to pay more for organic food, since it requires more labor to bring to market.

Not more nutritious: There's little or no evidence that organic food contains more nutrients than commercially grown food. A regular orange, for example, has about the same amount of vitamin C as an organic orange.

Not clean: You should still wash organic produce to remove dirt and bacteria, and take all normal food-handling precautions when preparing organic meats and other foods.

Not pesticide-free: While most synthetic pesticides are disallowed under the USDA organic program, copper compounds, tetracycline, streptomycin and dozens of other pesticides are allowed under certain circumstances.

Not local: Organic produce can come from miles away, and may require lots of energy to transport.

Not always healthy: Organic foods can still contain high levels of fat, sugar, sodium and other not-so-healthy ingredients. As food writer Marion Nestle often states, organic junk food is still junk food.

Best Buys in Organic Food

The higher price of organic food scares some consumers away, and market availability varies from season to season, from item to item and from region to region.

So what should smart consumers look for in their local food store?

Here's a list of 12 foods that are the , since the commercial varieties tend to be high in pesticide residues. You'll also find a list of the "Clean Fifteen" foods that tend to be very low in pesticides, even when grown commercially. Save money by purchasing them as regular, non-organic fruits and vegetables.

Organic Food's Environmental Benefits

There's little argument about the long-term value of sustainable agriculture, and one of the main reasons organic foods are so popular is their huge environmental benefit. Simply by using fewer pesticides, organic farms cause far less pollution to lakes and rivers, enhance soil quality, and are safer for farm workers as well as wild animals and plants.

Organic farms may also be more energy-efficient than "factory farms," since their practices require fewer manufactured fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and other chemical and petroleum-based compounds.