At the grocery store, I have noticed that organic food in general costs about 25 – 50% more than regular items, and in some cases the mark up is more than 200%. According to the USDA certification guidelines - “Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” For some, especially those with young children, it may seem like the benefits of using organic foods justifies the extra cost. But like everything else, it is important to look beyond the label to get the best bang for the buck. Here is some information that can help decide which organic purchases are worth the extra cost and which may not be.
Let’s start out with the “Dirty Dozen”, a list put together by not-for-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG). This list is based on the results of nearly 43,000 tests for pesticides on produce collected by the USDA and the FDA between 2000 and 2004. This list identifies the foods and vegetables that retain the most pesticide content in them. By switching to the organic equivalents of these items you can cut down the pesticide content in your daily food intake dramatically, hence maximizing the bang for the buck of your “organics budget”.
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Grapes (Imported)
On the other hand, if you are buying organic Onions, Avocado, Sweet Corn (Frozen), Pineapples, Mango, Sweet Peas (Frozen), Asparagus, Kiwi, Bananas, Cabbage, Broccoli or Eggplant, you may not be getting much benefit from spending the extra dollars for going organic. The same study as above indicates that these fruits and veggies retain very few pesticides. For full information about the items that you most often buy and to determine if the additional cost for going organic is really worth it, check out this detailed article or their complete data set.
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST) is a genetically engineered hormone that is injected into cows to increase milk production. Even though FDA approved the use of rBGH as safe for consumption in 1993, further studies have linked rBGH in humans to susceptibility to breast and colon cancer (Note: the results are not conclusive, though). In addition the cows treated with rBGH are more susceptible to diseases and hence likely to be treated with antibiotics, the remnants of which could be found in milk and other dairy products. Hence, spending your organic food budget on organic dairy products may be a wise decision. Here is a listing of artificial hormone-free brands listed by states.
Genetically Engineered Food
It is not quite clear if genetic/bio engineering will make the agricultural produce better or create frankenfoods. The debate rages on. If you would like to avoid the genetically engineered foods however, you might want to watch out for products containing corn, soy, canola and cotton. According to the True Food website, these four crops account for nearly 99% of the genetically engineered crop acreage in North America. As mentioned above, the USDA description of “organic” precludes the use of bioengineered ingredients, and so going organic for items that use corn, soy, canola and cotton seed can get you the best bang for the buck if you want to avoid genetically engineered food. Here is a list of brands that use/avoid genetically engineered ingredients for items ranging from baby foods to cookies to frozen dinners.
An informal study conducted by the authors of this MSNBC article found many organic items had much lower shelf life compared to conventional products. They used lettuce, broccoli, chicken and milk in their tests. They found that there was a significant difference, and in case of lettuce, broccoli and chicken, the organic produce went bad much sooner than the conventional produce. However, in the case of milk, they found that the organic milk had similar shelf life as regular milk. In general, when you plan your menus, make sure you use up the organic food items before you reach for the conventional groceries, to prevent wastage of those items that you have already a paid a premium for!
Understanding the labels
Finally, it is very important to understand what the labels mean when you purchase something organic. According to the USDA National Organic Program the labels can be interpreted as follows
Products labeled as “100% organic” must contain 100 percent organically produced ingredients, not counting added water and salt. Label may show the USDA organic seal and/or certifying agent seal(s).
Products labeled as “Organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not counting added water and salt. Also, they must not contain added sulfites. They may contain up to 5% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients which are not commercially available in organic form. Label may show the USDA organic seal and/or certifying agent seal(s). The label may also show “X% Organic”.
“Made with organic ingredients”
For products labeled as “made with organic ingredients” the percentage of organic-only ingredients drops down to 70%. Up to 30% of the ingredients may be non-organic. The label may show the certifying agent seal(s), but NOT the USDA organic seal.
Any product with less than 70% organic ingredients may not claim to be organic and may not show the USDA or any other certifying agent seal. They can however, list individual organic ingredients used.
So to sum it up, if you have a limited budget to spend on organic items make sure you understand which items offer the best benefits by going organic. Also, to me it looks like the best bang for the buck will be to buy something with the USDA seal since it guarantees that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic and the product does not contain sulfites, which cause allergies and asthma in some people. And finally, consume organic produce soon since they are likely to have smaller shelf life.
Do you buy organic food? What are the most common items that you prefer to buy organic? What do you do to save money in your organic groceries list?