When Is Organic Worth It (And When Is It Not)?

when is organic worth the costIt's almost a rule: Once the word "organic" is slapped on anything, the price seems to go up. Example: a four-pack of Seventh Generation toilet paper costs $4.50, whereas a four-pack of Charmin is almost half the price, at $2.50. (And the cheap generic costs only 99 cents.) It's not really the company's fault, either -- organic certification costs money, and producing organic products is more expensive.

We want to save both kinds of green. The first step is to understand what "organic" really means. According to the USDA's official definition, organic food "is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations." Know these distinctions:

1. "Organic" Is Not The Same As "Natural."

Don't confuse "organic" with terms like "natural" (which can mean lots of things and is often just clever marketing), "free-range," and "hormone-free." Those descriptions aren't regulated in the same way, so we recommend that you look into individual manufacturers if you want to find out about their standards of production.

2. There Are Different Levels Of Organic.

Before you spend the extra dough, first know quite how organic your product is. There are four levels of certification: (a) 100% Organic: All content is certified organic. (b) Organic: At least 95% of content, excluding water and salt, is organic. (c) Made With Organic: At least 70% of content is organic. (d) Ingredient Panel Only: Less than 70% organic.

Follow these 5 tips for buying organic without breaking the bank:

3. Buy Whole, Unprocessed Foods.

Remember that "organic" does not equal healthy—regular baby carrots are still better than organic potato chips. If eating healthy is a primary reason for going organic, try skipping the organic foods entirely and replacing them with whole grains and unprocessed foods of the traditional variety—they have more nutritional value and cost less than their over-refined and over-packaged counterparts. And if you buy in bulk, you're saving money and packaging, which is also a boon to the environment.

4. Go With The Store Brand.

Go with the store brand of a product, if offered, to ensure that you're paying for the product itself, not for fancy marketing. Of course, you can always snag a few coupons for extra savings on organic products, too.

5. Know When To Go Organic (And When To Pass).

Simple rule of thumb: If you're not eating the skin, then it's okay to go with non-organic. Foods that tend to be loaded with pesticides are called the "Dirty Dozen," and include food you eat without peeling away skin, like apples, bell peppers, and celery (see the full list here.) The "Clean 15" include onions, avocados, and sweet potatoes (full list here), most of which are protected by a skin or rind. Mind you, the "Clean 15" refers only to health, not environmental impact. So, we choose to snag the cheap bag of onions in exchange for that extra 49 cents on our celery.

6. Mind The Packaging.

Even if you don't buy the organic version of everything, you can still do right by the environment by buying products with minimal packaging (does each roll of toilet paper really need a separate paper wrapper?) Look for packaging that's made from biodegradable and/or recycled material such as glass, aluminum, and PET (the same sort of plastic that's in a water bottle) whenever you can.

7. Go Techy.

  • FoodNews.org offers a print-out guide and a free iPhone app to help you decide when to go organic and when it's not worth the cost.
  • Soleil Organics offers an app for $1 to help you understand labels and decide what's best.
  • Check out a helpful roundup of green apps from Grist to help you buy organic, research your products, and find local businesses that specialize in organic and local products.

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