Whether it's because of worries about food safety, ecological concerns, or just a desire to eat fresher, less processed foods, more and more food shoppers are buying organic these days. Yet organic foods and beverages can cost as much as 50% to 100% more than conventional foods -- and prices are going up for both organic and conventionally grown items.
Still, rising prices don't have to mean that cost-conscious consumers must give up the advantages of organic food. Here are some tips on how shoppers can stretch their food dollars for organic foods, and information about other food options that may be equally kind to the planet.
What Exactly Are Organic Foods?
Don't confuse terms such as "free-range," "hormone free" or "natural" with organic. While they may be truthful, these terms are not regulated by law. Look for the following regulated terms on food labels:
- "100% organic" is for foods that have no allowable synthetic ingredients and can use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic seal.
- "Organic" foods have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and are also eligible by law to use the USDA organic seal.
- "Made with Organic Ingredients" must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These foods are not eligible for the USDA seal.
A USDA organic seal indicates that the food was grown, harvested, and processed according to national organic standards that restrict the amounts and residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, foods called "organic" cannot be treated with any synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. They may, however, use biological pesticides (those derived from a natural source).
Keep in mind that while years ago, most "organic" foods you found at your neighborhood health food store came from small, local farms, this is now more the exception than the rule. Today, organic foods are big business, sold in chain groceries and often produced by multinational companies and then trucked across the country.
Organic Vegetables and Fruits
Organic foods generally cost more because the lack of pesticides means growing them is more labor-intensive, and the crop yield is not always as good. But, experts say a good place to spend your organic dollars is on fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables are conventionally treated with pesticides and fertilizers to enhance growth and prevent infestation, and are likely to contain pesticide residues.
"It really is a personal choice, but how can anyone think substances such as pesticides, capable of killing insects, can be good for you?" asks Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a food studies and public health professor at New York University. "If you can afford them, buy them. Given the choice, go organic, and if you can't afford them, try to buy [at least] the ones on the 'dirty dozen' list."
The "dirty dozen" refers to 12 fruits and vegetables that the nonprofit Environmental Working Group says are among the most susceptible to pesticide residue, and thus most profitable to buy organic. They are:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Grapes (imported)
The Environmental Working Group also has a list of 12 fruits and veggies likely to have the fewest pesticide residues, which may not be worth the added cost of buying organic. They are:
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet corn (frozen)
More Ways to Save on Organic Foods
Aside from limiting your organic produce purchases to the items with the highest potential for pesticides, how else can you save money when buying organic foods?
Here are eight tips to help stretch your organic food budget:
- Buy in bulk if you can use the food or store it without spoilage.
- Clip coupons from the newspaper or online sites.
- Plan your menus using advertised specials from your grocery.
- Compare prices between fresh and frozen, dried and canned varieties of organic foods. They may be less expensive than fresh, yet equally delicious when prepared correctly.
- Shop grocery chains that feature their own organic brand.
- Buy the generic organic version in your favorite market.
- Join an organic food cooperative (you can often find listings online or in your local health food store).
- Plant a garden and grow your own organic produce, or join a community garden.
Alternatives to Organic Foods
Foods don't have to be organic to be safe and environmentally friendly. Buying produce in season, and foods that have been locally grown, are other ways to eat healthfully while looking out for the Earth.
Produce from local farmers markets may not be organic, but is often fresher than the same foods from a supermarket and may have less impact on the environment. An added bonus: Foods from local markets require little packaging other than a container to help you get them home.
Other options for fresher food that is also kinder to the planet:
- Eat foods when they are in season, which honors the natural rhythm of the land.
- Choose less processed versions of conventional foods whenever possible.
- Eat more vegetarian meals. Organic meat can be expensive, and raising animals for meat generally takes more natural resources than growing produce.
When organic vegetables and fruits are not affordable or available, you can reduce the risk of pesticide residue on conventional fruits and vegetables with the following tips:
- Wash and scrub produce under running water (soaking is not adequate); 30 seconds significantly reduces surface residue.
- Peel skin whenever possible.
- Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
- Trim fat from meat and trim skin from poultry (pesticide residue can collect in fat).
- Eat a variety of foods from a variety of sources.
- Canned fruits and vegetables typically have lower pesticide residue; the canning process removes most toxins.
Keep in mind that whether you choose locally grown foods, organic foods, or conventional foods from your grocery story, experts agree that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables far outweighs the potential risks from pesticide exposure.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD and the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.