When Is It Worth Buying Organic?

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When deciding how to spend money, fewer things are as worthwhile an investment as your health. Your body and spirit will reap the rewards from money spent on fresh ingredients and great produce long after the glint on the latest (albeit fabulous) chunky necklace starts to tarnish.

Despite skeptical arguments about what organic or all-natural really means and recent gaffes like the lax food safety guidelines in China, we like organic and locally grown foods because they generally contain fewer pesticides and hormones, and are grown in ways that are better for the environment. That said, organic food is nearly always more expensive.

when is organic worth the cost

If your grocery budget doesn’t allow you to buy all organic all the time, we’ve created a chart to help you figure out which items are more important and which are okay to let slide. We’ve based our info on USDA standards, the pesticides found in each food, and common wisdom within the green community:

When is it worth buying organic

Some Basic Rules Of Thumb.

  • Think Skin: When in doubt, organic is the safer bet for produce with edible skins (like apples and grapes). Most exceptions in the chart above are for produce that has fewer natural pests and therefore tends to be farmed with fewer pesticides.
  • Meat: If you have to prioritize your organic budget anywhere, animal and animal products are the best investment, because of the higher risk of contamination in cooking. Antibiotic-free is the most important designation to look for in meats, though ideally you want it all–free range and pasture fed. A huge percentage of the contaminants are found in the fat, so if you must go non-organic, keep it lean (i.e. chicken breasts rather than thighs).
  • Go Local: Buying from local farmers is a great way to get healthy, fresh produce at reasonable prices, and reduce the carbon footprint of your food. It’s less important to look for organic designations here if you can find out your local farm’s growing practices.

Know The Jargon.

Note that “organic” means something very specific in terms of regulation by the USDA, whereas some other phrases like “wild” fish may face significantly less regulation. There are four levels of organic certification, as defined by the USDA:

  • 100% Organic: All content is certified organic.
  • Organic: At least 95% of content, excluding water and salt, is organic.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of content is organic.
  • Ingredient Panel Only: Less than 70% organic.

The Bottom Line.

Remember that “organic” doesn’t equal healthy—non-organic chicken breast and broccoli are a healthier choice than organic potato chips and organic mac and cheese (though it does give us the illusion of health when we indulge). If you’re in the market for healthy snacks, check out our expert’s suggestions and LearnVest readers’ favorites.

And, in our humble opinion, organic wine goes with anything–organic or not!

  • Kathy

    For fish go to http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.aspx nOur local zoo hands out the pocket guides and I keep it in my purse and use it while I shop.

  • 83gal

    why is there no answer for peach or apple???

    • Laura

      I think this one depends on whether you eat the skins or not. If you do, then organic would be recommended.

  • Guest

    83gal – I’m not sure why they aren’t filled in, but it is recommended that you buy organic for apples and pears (thin skin). You can see more on the ‘dirty dozen’ here: nhttp://www.thedailygreen.com/healthy-eating/eat-safe/Dirty-Dozen-Foods

    • Mallory

      It could be a browser issue that isn’t allowing you to see the check marks for peach and apple, but for the record, you’re right – we recommend buying organic for both!nMallory, EA @ LearnVest

  • http://twitter.com/meggarooni Megan Kramer

    This is a great article and very useful! Let’s face it – it requires extra effort (especially for those of us not near a major city) to find and purchase the sometime obscure, but healthy, products we want – even produce. Although I try to budget for and buy mostly organic – sometimes it’s just not available at my grocery store and I don’t always have a chance to go to my local farmers’ market (only open 1 day per week). In a pinch when I need produce, I’m going to print this and bring it to the store with me.

  • JackieAU5

    You couldn’t be more right about the meats. I have been buying all-natural meats and I notice a huge difference in taste and it gives me a piece of mind that I’m not eating something injected with all sorts of hormones and additives. Freaks me out. nnI would also like to note that I cannot wait until summer so I can shop at local farmstands! Fresh produce and supoprting local merchants. Nothing better than that…and they make for amazing pies.

    • Madison

      You’re right – It is not the same! I grew up on a small farm where we raised our own meat and produce so I never bought meat at a grocery store until I moved to the city. And as for the farmer’s markets – they not only sell the freshest produce, they’re really cheap too!

  • Nikka

    What was your source for broccoli? I read that broccoli attracks lots of bugs and heavier pesticides need to be used, thus it is best to purchase organic.

  • M_ksenia79

    What a mess!!!! Are you kidding???? Just be careful what you buying. Read before. Healthy food is nature food. Everything have to be organic!!!!!!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/icebeezkneez Beez Kneez Icecream

    These are some great key rules to follow. Thanks for this LearnVest

  • Melissa

    I wouldn’t say buying wild-caught fish is necessarily better for the environment, especially if it’s a fish that sits relatively high on the food chain. With almost 7 billion people in the world now, the fish reserves continue to shrink as the global appetite for seafood grows.

  • Booh

    why aren’t bananas on this list?

    • RNN

      I have read that bananas should be organic, not because of the risk of consuming pesticides (remember you don’t eat the skins), but because of the environmental impact of their methods of production.  Something to do with deforestation, I think. I can’t remember where I read that, but it stuck with me.

        Anyway, organic bananas aren’t generally too much more expensive than regular bananas, so I usually go organic with them unless there’s a great sale price.  

  • OrganicTrade

    Thanks to the growth of private label products, farmersu2019 markets, manufacturersu2019 coupons, and customer loyalty programs, buying organic is easier and more affordable than ever. One easy way to save is to consider choosing organic versions of the products you buy most. Whether that is milk, produce, or personal care products, buying organic will not only help reduce your exposure to harmful synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but also support a system of agricultural management that is great for the planet.nnFor more tips on how to stretch your organic dollars, visit http://www.organicitsworthit.org/get/buying-organic-easier-and-more-affordable-ever. Also check out the Organic Trade Association’s Savvy Organic Shopper blog (http://www.organicitsworthit.org/blog), which offers price comparisons between organic and conventional products from retail outlets across the U.S. and illustrates the many reasons why choosing organic is the better bargain.nnOrganic. Itu2019s worth it.

  • Foodie1980

    Organic vegetables tend to be far more nutritious. Pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers keep the plants from growing to their full nutritional value as they keep the plants from fully exporting the nutrients from the soil. The more nutritious a food is, the less you need to be sated. The threat of consuming pesticides isn’t enough of a reason IMHO to buy organic. A better reason is: you are what you eat, and that goes to what you eat. Personally, I would rather spend extra on the food than extra on a doctor later on.

  • Thinker

    It is disappointing that you have been sucked into the organic mythology instead letting facts guide you. Conventional agriculture allows for higher yields, and thus lower impact on the environment. Furthermore, conventional food is tested for pesticide residues to assure it is safe. Organic food is not tested, so you never know what you are getting. The organic industry suppers the myth that no pesticides or toxic chemicals are used. Nothing is further from the truth. The so-called organic pesticides are very toxic (think arsenic, copper salts) and have to be applied at much higher doses than conventional pesticides, which is worse for the environment. The whole organic premise makes little sense. Why would a natural chemical be any better than a synthesized chemical? Are scorpion toxins and poison harmless because they are natural? Of course not. Finally, there is no difference in nutrition between conventional crops and organic crops.

    • 4thmoon

      Could you please submit your sources of information for your comments? I buy organic as much as possible but have heard both arguments and want to research the truth myself. Also, a question or two for you. Isn’t grass fed, no hormone meat ultimately better than corn fed, hormone based meat? Isn’t it better to eat from a source where the animal is living in its natural environment rather than eating an unhealthy diet and penned up? I am not wanting an argument. I really do want to do research for myself and am not into throwing away my money for a label. Thanks…

      • Elizabeth

        Scientific articles worth reading and available online: 1) relating to a decrease in the nutrient content of conventionally grown produce since the 1950s and 2) higher nutrient content in organic versus conventionally grown crops:
        1) Davis, D.R., M.D. Epp, and H.D. Riordan. 2004. Changes in USDA food composition data fro 43 garden crops, 1950  to 1999. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23(6): 669-682.2) Worthington, V. 2001. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 7(2): 161-173.
        For an extremely detailed review of known toxin, pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc. resides found in almost any conventionally grown market crop and processed food, I highly recommend David Steinman’s Diet for a Poisoned Planet. He uses results from the Total Diet Study which measured the number of residues in at least 36 market-basket samples. I was shocked to find out how many residues from illegal (due to known high toxicity) chemicals are STILL present in our foods today.
        A thought for the use of natural chemicals versus synthesized chemicals: of the 80,000+ chemicals registered for use in the US, less than 500 have been tested for toxicity by the EPA. And almost none have been tested for synergistic effects on toxicity.

    • Lcooper588

      You mention higher yield from conventional agriculture, yet studies have shown that these higher yield foods tend to be far less nutritious than organic crops [some stating that high yield vegetables have up to 30% less vital nutrients when compared to their organic brothers]. Also, while I agree that toxins produced in nature can still be harmful, the levels of pesticides that industrial farmers pump into the soil is far, far worse than the naturally occurring toxins in the soil on organic farms. The pesticides from industrial ag. are in such toxic quantities that they are rendering the soil useless, or at the very best, only capable of producing soy and corn.

    • Lcooper588

      You mention higher yield from conventional agriculture, yet studies have shown that these higher yield foods tend to be far less nutritious than organic crops [some stating that high yield vegetables have up to 30% less vital nutrients when compared to their organic brothers]. Also, while I agree that toxins produced in nature can still be harmful, the levels of pesticides that industrial farmers pump into the soil is far, far worse than the naturally occurring toxins in the soil on organic farms. The pesticides from industrial ag. are in such toxic quantities that they are rendering the soil useless, or at the very best, only capable of producing soy and corn.

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Editor?

    An overload of information and the poor woman pictured in the article still doesn’t have an answer about her oranges and whether or not she should buy them (from a produce stand in the third world apparently.)

  • Igman3k

    Corn peas potatoes all GMO crops. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roza-Lee/1758411898 Roza Lee

    I THINK ORGANIC IS ALWAYS BEST  for us and the earth  I am french and I am used to buy food from the  farmer market even in the big city like paris. Something I would like to know is what the hell is the gross juice they put the chicken in. It look like fat :(  but something awesome in the U.S is that you have a lot of organic and at a cheap price. In france I am looked at like a posh hippy lol I want the best for my daugter and organic is the answer

    • Anonymous

      Roza, that juice the chicken is in is the saline water used to keep it from getting wilty and such. As well as any preservatives added. That saline adds weight to the chicken allowing them to charge a bit more as well as the previously stated function. But that’s all I really know. Not bad for a 21 year old though, lolz.

  • Valerie

    I am very disappointed to see this article, and would love to hear what LearnVest used to determine their facts. I work in the beef industry (on a feedlot, no less), and am fully aware of which antibiotics & drugs enter America’s food animals. There is no scientific study that adequately proves organic is any less harmful than conventionally raised food. In my work, we have gobs of protocols and checks to make sure that an animal with active antibiotics or hormones does NOT enter the food system until the body has cleared these additives away. The FDA does yearly to ensure that their withdrawl times are accurate (the amount of time necessary after a dose of antibiotics/hormones before there are no residual antibiotics/hormones carried in the animals blood, muscle, or fat tissue).

    You can read more about the FDA guidelines here http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/UCM216936.pdf

    You can read more about every day precautions I take on the feedlot to ensure you are eating safe and nutritious conventionally-raised beef here: http://farmthestart.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/every-day-on-the-feedlot-i-pump-antibiotics-into-your-future-steak-or-hamburger/

    • Julie

      Trusting the FDA? Seriously? And isn’t the beef industry well known for mistreating animals?

  • Kyleigh716

    Check out this site – the Environmental Working Group. You can download an app or a small printout (that I keep in my wallet) that talks about the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen. 
    http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ 

  • Anonymous

    I actually live in Hawaii, so I think the top four would be reversed right?