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Organic Foods - Are They Worth the Price Tag?

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

Demand for organic foods is at an all time high because consumers want to know their food supply is safe and kind to the planet. But are they safer, healthier and worth the added expense?

Some experts say if you can afford them, then buy them. Others say there is no evidence that organic foods are superior to traditional foods and therefore it's not worth the added expense.

It truly is a personal choice. Regardless of whether you choose foods that are locally grown, organic or conventional foods from your grocery store, experts agree that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables far outweigh the potential risks from pesticide exposure.

Organic foods have come a long way

Years ago, organic foods were only available at health food stores and marketed to tree-hugging consumers willing to pay extra – but no longer. Today, organic foods have gone mainstream. They not only line the shelves and produce sections at health food stores but can be found at your neighborhood grocer. Even giants like Wal-Mart are getting into the act because of consumer demand.

The demand is driven by the desire to be 'green', to ensure that our food production is kind and gentle to the earth and the desire for safer, purer foods.

But food does not have to be organic to be safe and environmentally friendly. Eating closer to the source and more holistically can be just as good an option. Sustainable farming and eating locally may not be organic but the foods produced are done in conditions that are gentler to the planet, promote sustainable agriculture and improve the quality of our water and soil.

Where to spend your dollars on organic foods

Expect to pay 50-100% more for organic foods because in general it is more labor intensive. Without the help of pesticides, the yield is not always as favorable. You can keep costs down by shopping sale items, comparing prices, buying locally grown products at farmers' markets or joining a co-op. Large grocery store chains getting involved in organic foods will help keep prices down.

Spend your organic dollars primarily on produce. Fruits and vegetables are conventionally treated with pesticides and fertilizers to enhance growth and prevent infestation and are most likely to contain residues.

The Environmental Working Group, a DC based nonprofit group, recommends going organic on the 'dirty dozen.' These produce are most susceptible to pesticide residue.

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Kale

The group also lists produce with the least or no pesticide residues that are probably not worth the added expense of going organic:

  • Cabbage
  • Kiwi
  • Sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Mango
  • Pineapple
  • Corn
  • Avocado
  • Onions
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Honeydew melon
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Sweet potatoes

Is it more nutritious?

The USDA makes no claims that organic foods are safer, healthier or more nutritious than conventional foods and there is little research on the health outcomes of people who eat primarily organic diets.

Organic food is healthier for the planet, and grown in better soil. Since it does not contain pesticides, some experts think it is healthier overall. Organic food may be a little higher in certain vitamins and antioxidants but the differences are small and insignificant.

Reduce pesticides from produce

To get the most nutrition from your food, eat it fresh. Do your part to reduce pesticide residues on foods:

  • Wash and scrub produce under streaming water to remove dirt, bacteria and surface pesticide residues (do not use soap), even produce with inedible skins such as cantaloupe
  • Remove the peel from fruits and vegetables
  • Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables
  • Trim visible fat and skin from meat and poultry
  • Eat a variety of foods from different sources
  • Spend your dollars on the organic versions of the 'dirty dozen'
  • Join a co-op farm that supports community agriculture

What's organic?

Don't confuse terms such as 'free-range', 'hormone free' or 'natural' with organic. They may be truthful, but these terms are not regulated by law. Look for the following regulated terms on labels to be sure the products you purchase comply with the standards:

  • "100% organic" is the real thing without any allowable synthetic ingredients and can use the organic seal.
  • "Organic" has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and is eligible by law to use the USDA organic seal (voluntary).
  • "Made with Organic Ingredients" must contain at least 70% organic ingredients – not eligible for the seal.
  • Organic meat, eggs, poultry and dairy must come from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones.

At this time there is no rationale for buying organic seafood or cosmetics because the USDA has yet to set standards for these items and most cosmetics are blends, including ingredients that may or may not be organic.

SOURCES: Lu C. Environmental Health Perspectives, online edition, Sept. 1, 2005. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Pesticides and Food: How the Government Regulates Pesticides."
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Pesticides and Food: Healthy, Sensible Food Practices."
U.S. Department of Agriculture; Consumer Reports, February 2006; vol 71: pp 12-17;USDA organic standardsOpens a new window;
Environmental Working Group website.

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