Organic Food: Worth the Money?

Magazine Article Lists Organic Items Worthy of Your Shopping Cart

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 10, 2006 -- Pondering the purchase of organic foods? A story in Consumer Reports spells out which organic items are worth buying -- and which aren't.

Here is the list, which appears in the magazine's February edition:

Organic items worth buying as often as possible: Apples, baby food, bell peppers, celery, cherries, dairy, eggs, imported grapes, meat, nectarines, peaches, pears, poultry, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.

Organic items worth buying if money is no object: Asparagus, avocados, bananas, bread, broccoli, cauliflower, cereals, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, oils, onions, papaya, pasta, pineapples, potato chips, and sweet peas. Also included are packaged products such as canned vegetables and dried fruit.

Organic items not worth buying: Seafood and cosmetics.

Expect to pay more for organic foods, which are more labor-intensive to grow and don't get government subsidies, states the article.

Magazine's Standards

When Consumer Reports drew up those lists, they considered government standards for organic foods and residues of pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones used in raising nonorganic foods. The article doesn't focus on environmental issues.

Why did seafood and cosmetics fare poorly?

Consumer Reports notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hasn't set standards for organic seafood, and wild and farmed seafood can be labeled "organic" even if they contain contaminants such as mercury and PCBs.

As for cosmetics, the article states that products typically contain a mix of ingredients that didn't necessarily come from organic agriculture.

What About Cost?

Organic foods are often more expensive than nonorganic foods. "On average, you'll pay 50% extra for organic food, but you can easily end up shelling out 100% more, especially for milk and meat," states Consumer Reports.

The article offers these ideas to cut costs of organic foods:

  • Comparison shop
  • Buy locally produced organic foods (check farmers' markets)
  • Buy a share in a community-supported organic farm to get a regular supply of seasonal organic produce
  • Order by mail

Consumer Reports also recommends checking that fresh organic fruits and vegetables aren't placed too close to nonorganic produce in grocery stores, since misting could let pesticide residue run.


Organic Health

The magazine article mentions a study in which kids' pesticide exposure quickly dropped after switching to an organic diet. The researchers tracked pesticide exposure, not the kids' health.

The web site of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that while pesticides carry some risks, especially for babies and kids, strict rules protect people from being exposed to too much pesticide residue.

The Consumer Reports article mentions concerns that widespread use of antibiotics in conventionally raised animals may spawn drug resistance and that synthetic growth hormones (which are banned for poultry and any organically raised animals) could cause cancer or speed up puberty for girls.

Those fears don't hold water, critics say.

The National Dairy Council's web site states that "American milk and dairy products are among the safest and most highly regulated foods in the world" and that milk from hormone-treated cows has repeatedly been shown to be "safe for human consumption."

What's 'Organic?'

The U.S. market for organic foods has skyrocketed in recent years and is expected to more than double by 2009, states Consumer Reports.

Meanwhile, government standards for organic foods have been hotly contested. Here's Consumer Reports' guide to label lingo:

  • "100% organic": No synthetic ingredients are allowed by law.
  • "Organic": At least 95% of ingredients are organically produced.
  • "Made with Organic Ingredients": At least 70% of ingredients are organic; the other 30% are from a list approved by the USDA.
  • "Free-range" or "free-roaming": Animals had an undetermined amount of daily outdoor access. This label does not provide much information about the product.
  • "Natural" or "All Natural": Doesn't mean organic. No standard definition, except for meat and poultry products, which may not contain any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. Claims aren't checked.
WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 10, 2006


SOURCES: Consumer Reports, February 2006; vol 71: pp 12-17. WebMD Medical News: "Organic Diet Cuts Kids' Food Pesticide Levels." National Dairy Council: "Nutrition & Product Information: Dairy Food Safety." News release, Consumer Reports.

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