Is Buying Organic Foods Worth the Money?

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Whenever you grocery shop, you are faced with a variety of options for each type of food you buy. Sometimes you have to decide between different brand names, while other times you need to choose between different types of produce. (We prefer Fuji Apples to Granny Smith.) For many grocery store items, you may be offered an organic choice as well. But is organic necessarily better, or worth the additional cost?

What are organic foods?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the rules for what is and isn’t organic, and has two different organic standards: “USDA Organic”, and the stricter designation, “100% Organic”.

General foods, as well as crops, cannot be considered USDA Organic if synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering is involved in the production process. Foods like bananas, apples and corn fit into the crops category.

For livestock, producers must meet animal health and welfare standards as well as use 100% organic feed. Producers cannot use antibiotics or growth hormones and livestock must have access to the outdoors. This mostly applies to meat you may consume, as well as any animal byproducts such as milk or eggs.

To be labeled “USDA Organic”, multi-ingredient foods must meet the same requirements as stated above, on top of proving that 95% or more of the content of the food is certified organic.

The more exclusive label “100% Organic” can be applied if 100% of the ingredients are organic and all of the other rules of the regular USDA Organic label are followed.

What to consider about organic foods

Before you decide to buy only organic food, take a minute to consider how organic foods will affect you. Not all organic foods should be considered equal. Some organic foods simply use fewer pesticides and non-organic ingredients, or avoid production processes that disqualify foods from being organic, so there may not be much additional value in the food to warrant the higher price.

Several studies have been conducted to compare the chemical compositions of organic foods with those of conventional foods. Some research has indicated that organic crops and meat contain higher levels of nutrients including phosphorus, omega-3 fatty acids and certain polyphenols with antioxidant properties. However, the evidence is not yet conclusive and there is still much debate over the financial value associated with the nutritional benefits of organic food.

When organic is worth the higher price

When it comes to foods that normally have a high percentage of pesticide residues, it may be worth the additional cost to go organic, since you could directly consume these unwanted items. For instance, lettuce and spinach often have pesticide residue on their leaves, which is exactly the part that you eat. Apples are another big offender when it comes to pesticides. In order to produce apples at a reasonable price, pesticides must be used to keep bugs from damaging apple crops.

Keep in mind, if you do not eat the outside layer of a food and the pesticide is only topically applied, it often does not make sense to splurge on the organic item, since you will dispose of the skin, rind or peel before you cook or eat it. An example of such a food is a banana, since you throw away the potentially pesticide-covered peel before you consume the inside of the fruit.

Not sure if a pesticide is applied topically or not? Think about where the food grows. If the edible part of the food grows above ground, a topical pesticide may have been used to ward off bugs.

Other produce items that often have pesticide residue include bell peppers, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, cherries and celery. Since you do not remove the outer layer of these items, choosing to buy organic may allow you to sleep better at night, knowing that you have helped your family to avoid consuming pesticides.

Items not worth the added price

Of course, not all foods require pesticides in order for them to be produced at a reasonable price. Items like milk do not contain many pesticide residues. While cows may eat grains covered in pesticide residue, the residue usually ends up in the fat. If you buy skim milk, fat is removed and the unwanted residues along with it. The same can be said for low-fat yogurt and many of the non-fatty meat portions you buy.

Additionally, the USDA has not yet determined standards for what would make fish organic. What one person calls an organic fish may vary wildly from what another vendor claims is organic, so you likely are better off not paying the higher price for organic fish.

Some of the least-contaminated foods include onions, asparagus, pineapples, mangoes, broccoli, cabbage, bananas, frozen sweet corn, and frozen sweet peas. Many of these have outer layers that are not consumed so even if there were residue, it would likely be discarded prior to consumption.

When it comes to buying organic food, make sure to buy items that give you the most organic bang for your buck. Our simple rule: if you eat the skin, buy organic. If you throw the skin away, do not throw your money away buying organic versions of those foods.

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