My wife and I often wonder if organic produce is worth it? After all, it can be TWICE the cost of regular, conventional produce in the grocery stores. Is organic produce a scam, or, can it add years to your life?
To the normal Money Buffalo readers, this post will be a little different than my usual format. I do hope you enjoy the analysis and will share your opinion with the community as well!
Disclaimer: Also, I’m not a medical professional. All statements in this article are my own opinion.
History of Organic Food
Let’s first look at the origins of organic produce. The world has seen many changes in the past 100 years, including two world wars and the digital revolution. One of the largest changing trends is the fact that the world population has grown from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000.
There are many reasons for the increased global population growth that have primarily stemmed from the Industrial Revolution that took place in the 1800s and introduced the concepts of machines and mass production factories that have fostered some of the most innovative technological breakthroughs (the automobile, airplane, atomic bomb, computers, the Internet, cell phones….) the world has seen. As a result, many nations have seen a rise in wealth and longer life expectancies for the general population.
How does that relate to organic produce?
With four billion more people on the world than 100 years before, that also means there are four billion more mouths to feed. To support the population growth, farmers began using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to ensure a plentiful harvest every year. In 1909, Fritz Haber discovered how to separate nitrogen from the air–a necessary step to make modern agricultural fertilizers– and from that moment farmers suddenly had a “cheap” source of man-made fertilizers that have helped boost the crop production to the necessary levels for a growing planet.
The organic food movement has its roots in the 1920s when commercial chemicals were used to boost crop yields. In a way, you could say everything was “organic” before early-1900s. The first organized accreditation group was formed in 1972 by several international bodies and is called the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Since 1972, the organic food movement has grown by leaps and bounds and entire themed-grocery stores, like Whole Foods, are oriented to sell non-conventionally-sourced food.
What (Exactly) Is Organic Food?
The most common organic food you might think of is fruits and vegetables. When you visit a grocery store, there is usually a separate section in the fresh produce section. Maybe you have taken steps to avoid this refrigerated section because the prices are slightly higher.
In addition to fruits and veggies, you can also buy organic milk, dry food (i.e. Annie’s Mac and Cheese), coffee and tee, and meat. Prices between organic and conventional (non-organic) food can vary between each product. For example, the price difference for buying organic spinach or avocados can be less than buying organic milk or eggs as you can buy a dozen conventional eggs for 50 cents if they go on sale.
Different Levels of Organic Food
Just as you can buy three different grades of gasoline for your car–regular, plus, and premium–there are several different grading levels for organic food:
- 100% Organic: The entire product was grown organically or animals were only fed organic grains and not administered antibiotics or growth hormones
- Organic: Consists of at least 95% organic ingredients
- Made With Organic Ingredients: Consists of at least 70% organic ingredients. The manufacturer can list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging
Have you ever seen the above logo?
If you have ever looked at different organic foods, the answer is most likely yes. The USDA Organic Seal can only be displayed on organic foods that are at least 95% organic. A producer can be subject to an $11,000 fine for illegally displaying the label on their item packaging.
It might not be worth the extra money to buy organic food if it only has a statement like “Made with Organic Ingredients” and doesn’t display the organic seal. Not to say it isn’t a good product, but, it might not be worth spending a few extra dollars if it’s mostly made of conventional ingredients. (That’s just my personal opinion).
Organic Food and GMOs
By definition, organic food is non-GMO (genetically modified). If you are also concerned about the quality of GMO produce and GMO-raised livestock and dairy, you might also consider buying organic for this reason.
Are Organic Foods Sprayed With Pesticides and Herbicides?
Yes and no.
If you have ever tried growing a no-spray garden, you know how hard it can be to keep the bugs away from your plants. You also know that most of your pickings do not look perfect, even though they are 100% edible and taste great.
All organic food is allowed to be sprayed with up to 25 synthetic pesticides. That’s compared to over 900 conventional pesticides. How many pesticides are sprayed will depend on the crop (i.e. grapes require more than tomatoes) and it also depends on the farm. Farmers that want “perfect” crops will use more sprays so that fewer pickings have blemishes. Unfortunately, 40% of all food (conventional and organic) is taken directly from the farm to the landfill because we all want to buy the “perfect” piece of fruit.
Ultimately you need to check with the source and ask for the position on using organic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Since the organic movement is more health-conscious as a whole, you can assume that more farms than not will not spray as frequently as conventional produce. They might even use more health-friendly sprays as well.
Why Should You Buy Organic Food?
Now that we’ve covered the difference between organic food and conventional food, here are some reasons why you might try buying organic food as often as possible.
We Have a 50% Chance of Being Diagnosed With Cancer
The American Cancer Society has statistics that show males have a 1 in 2 chance of being diagnosed with cancer and women have a 1 in 3 chance of being diagnosed with cancer at least once in their life.
If you a guy and only have one brother (like me), the math shows that one of you will get cancer.
I don’t like those odds.
That’s one reason why my wife and I drink filtered water. Whether or not you eat organic food, the conventional pesticides, and all the other 21st-century chemicals are in our water and can create long-term negative health effects too.
Eating food with fewer pesticides can reduce your chance of being diagnosed with cancer because you are eating like your great-grandparents ate who lived to be 90 and died of natural causes. There are many reasons you can get cancer from smoking to (potentially) talking on your cell phone too much, but, why add one reason to come down with cancer, right?
Organic Food Has More Nutrients
In addition to having less pesticide residue, organic food is more nutrient dense. Organic fruits and vegetables will have more vitamins and minerals. And, organic meats and dairy products can have more healthy fats like Omega-3 fatty acids.
Organic grains also tend to have less cadmium (and other heavy metals) because the soil has fewer residues. In organic farming communities where the adjacent fields are organic as well, the nutrition factors can be even better.
Organic Food Tastes Better
One downside of organic farming is that yields are anywhere from 20% to 70% less than conventional farming since fewer synthetic chemicals are used. But, there are benefits to smaller crop yields including the fact that organic food has more nutrients (mentioned above) and taste tests show have repeatedly shown that organic food tastes better.
Why does organic food taste better?
There are several theories. For one, conventional farmers apply rapid-grow fertilizers that don’t give the crops as much time to “mature.” Also, conventional, GMO crops that are designed to be drought-resistant or blight-resistant might sacrifice taste as well. This issue is just for organic fruits and vegetables, t
This issue isn’t just for organic fruits and vegetables, the same difference in quality can also apply to commercial roses vs. homegrown rose bushes and also free-range chicken eggs vs. the 50-cent carton from a generic brand.
You Invest In Your Health
Just as you invest to save for retirement, buying organic can help you invest in your health. Making healthy decisions today like eating organic food, avoiding sugary drinks and junk food, and regular physical activity can help prevent future ailments stemming from our modern diet.
How To Buy Organic Food?
If you want to buy organic food, here are a few tips to help you secure the best quality for the best price.
For full disclosure, my wife and I buy organic and use several of these services. Even the online ones!
If You Only Buy Organic Produce
Organic fruits and veggies can be the easiest place to start changing your buying habits because there are so many options.
Each year, the Environmental Working Groups publishes a list called “The Dirty Dozen” (not to be confused with the classic Hollywood hit) of the 12 fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. If you only have the money to buy a few organic produce items, these five items should be your priority:
In addition to buying organic from the grocery store, you might be able to find local, organic produce at your local farmers market. This can be a great way to connect with local farmers and ask them questions of sustainability. And, you can also connect with other local organic foodies to find even more organic food sources for less-than-retail prices!
No doubt, you have heard the expression “You are what you eat.” Organic and clean eating shouldn’t stop at fruits and vegetable. You should also consider buying meat that has been organically raised. Not only did the animals eat better quality feed, they also have not been pumped with all of the antibiotics and hormones that the commercial feedlots use because they need to squeeze as many heads of cattle, chickens, or pigs into a contained area as possible.
Here’s how we buy healthy meat and save money:
- Buy grass-fed beef from grocery store or local farmers
- Buy store-brands with the USDA Organic seal instead of buying a name-brand
- Purchase fresh eggs from a local farmer or co-op (the shells are thicker and the yolks are much darker than the cartons you can buy in the store)
You need to also consider buying organic milk, ice cream, butter, and other dairy items. All of these items can be laden with pesticide residue, artificial sweeteners, and bonding agents (hello, non-dairy creamer) that can negate any health benefits when purchased conventionally.
I might ruffle some feathers here, but, I encourage you to buy local dairy before buying a national brand. Yes, the national organic brands (like Annie’s or Costco) can still be healthier than conventional dairy, but, they still have production quotas to meet and can sacrifice quality.
When possible try to buy organic dairy products with the following traits:
- Grass-fed cows
- Non-homogenized milk
- Low pasteurized milk
If you want to watch a movie that might open your eyes regarding our modern farming practices, I encourage you to watch King Corn. You might also be able to stream it on Netflix.
Organic Packaged Food
Ah yes, packaged food. You know, anything that comes in a box and all you have to do is add water and cook. I’ll admit, we keep some on hand because (a) it’s convenient and (b) it’s food. Our little girl loves Annie’s Mac and Cheese and we rarely take the time to make the homemade variety where we grate the cheese and melt it ourselves, even though it tastes 1000% more delicious.
Organic packaged food is somewhat of an oxymoron as packaged food, in general, is a 20th-century invention. The only thing close to it in previous years was the hardtack rations that Civil War soldiers ate in the 1860s.
For your general health, try to avoid packaged food as much possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s organic or conventional. As an example, organic candy might not have as many bad food colors or preservatives, but, it’s still primarily sugar.
While most grocery stores will have an “Organic Aisle,” you might find a better deal online. We use the following online websites for our organic packaged foods:
- Azure Standard (Fresh Produce, Dried Goods…Delivers once a month to a drop site)
- Vitacost (We order from here at least once a month! Join their mailing list to get extra coupons!)
- Thrive Market
Bonus Money-Saving Tip: Shop through Ebates to get cash back at the above recommendations and to save 1% to 40% at over 2,000 stores. See my full Ebates review to see how we earn a “Big Fat Check” each quarter!
Bonus Note: Of the five recommendations above, Azure Standard has the largest produce selection. My wife calls it the “Whole Foods on Wheel” as you place an online order once a month. And, you literally unload your items from the semi truck at a local drop. Before placing your first order, you will need to see if there’s a drop near you and you can call the local drop coordinator to get more information.
In my opinion, buying organic food is definitely worth it! Do we buy everything organic? No. But, we buy as much as possible to be organic or sustainably-raised. In addition to buying organic, we also try to avoid “junk food” with no nutritional value like candy bars, Twinkies, and sugary drinks. You can buy organic items at most grocery stores, but, I also encourage you to seek other organic sources locally and online to save money and to potentially enjoy a higher quality item.
What’s your opinion on organic food? Is it worth the extra cost?