Smart Shopping: When it Makes Sense to Buy Organic

March 5, 2013

Photo by DC Central Kitchen, via Flickr

If you’re trying to stick to a grocery budget, there’s no doubt that buying organic can quickly take a huge chunk out of the cash you’ve set aside. In fact, when Savvy Sugar shopped for all organic grocery staples and then purchased the same non-organic items, the price difference was significant -- $19.19, or 56%.

The truth is, there isn’t an all or nothing answer when it comes to buying organic – sometimes it makes a difference and sometimes you’re simply paying more for what seems like a good idea.

Here is when you should shell out the extra cash and when it’s better to keep it in the bank.

Produce

According to the Environmental Working Group, these produce items were found to contain large amounts of pesticides and should be bought organic.

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Grapes
  8. Spinach
  9. Lettuce
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Blueberries
  12. Potatoes

These produce items were found to be low in pesticides and therefore don’t need to be purchased organic.

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocado
  5. Cabbage
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Eggplant
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cantaloupe
  12. Sweet potatoes

Dairy and Eggs

While reports released last year by the USDA called into question how much consumers can trust the organic label on dairy products, the overall consensus is that organic is better for your health as well as the health of the animals the products come from.

Cows and chickens used to produce organic products are not given growth hormones and they are fed grain that doesn’t contain chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Cows must be allowed at least 120 days per year to graze, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and chickens have access to a yard that’s not laden with chemicals.

In turn, this translates to cleaner products for the consumer.

Meat

For the same reason as dairy products and eggs – growth hormones, exposure to pesticides, fair treatment of animals – experts suggest going organic when it comes to beef and poultry. Perhaps more notably is the fact that this reduces the risk of mad cow disease and other toxins found in non-organic feed.

If you opt to skip the added cost and go the conventional route, it’s suggested that you trim as much fat from the meat as possible – this is usually where residues of pesticides reside.

Here are other items mentioned in the organic debate:

Baby Food:
Babies and young children have a hard time processing harsh chemicals and pesticides, and since fruits and veggies found in baby food are highly concentrated, the chemicals can be intensified as well.

Coffee:
Coffee beans grown in other countries may not have been held to the same standards in terms of pesticides and fertilizers, so some say it’s better to look for the USDA organic label before purchasing.

Popcorn:
Microwave popcorn bags are said to contain a toxic chemical used to keep the popcorn from sticking to the bag. While all the effects aren’t known, it’s believed to have a link to cancer and other health ailments.

Before you jump in line at the grocery store, make sure you’re clear on what the labels mean. WebMD breaks it down:

  • "100% organic" -- This means the food has no synthetic ingredients and can use the organic seal.
  • "Organic" -- This means the food has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. It can also use the organic seal.
  • "Made with organic ingredients" -- This means the food must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These foods cannot use the seal.
  • Meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy labeled "organic" must come from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Standards for organic seafood and cosmetics have not been set.

Don't confuse "free-range," "hormone free" or "natural" with organic. Look for the organic seal which means the food is grown, harvested, and processed according to USDA standards that include restrictions on amounts and residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Natural pesticides are allowed. Organic foods cannot be treated with any sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.

Other articles you may be interested in:
Simple Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget
Grocery Store Tips: How to Get More for Less