Organic Produce – Is it worth the cost?

Be sure to visit The Pesticide Chart to see
which are the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables.

I taught a large cooking class this week and one of the questions that came up – as it often does – is whether organic fruits and vegetables are worth the price.  I always say that if your food budget is unlimited, it is always better to buy everything organic.  However, most of us are working with a limited budget and we often need to make hard choices when it comes to our purchasing decisions. I used to steer away from organic produce and products because I assumed they would always be way outside of my price range.  Then, I started to investigate what organic really means and began to search for smart ways to be able to incorporate the wisest choices into our pantry and refrigerator.  I started with organic apples – simply because we were having a very hard time finding good tasting apples.  It took a while to get over the initial price, but after our first bag of organic apples, we were hooked.  The apples had drawn me over to the organic side of my local grocer, and the taste kept me looking at other organic produce.  Much to my surprise, I often found organic produce at prices very close to traditionally grown items.  Then I joined a co-op and we are now very fortunate to be able to buy mostly organic produce.  But let’s go back to the beginning.

What exactly does organic mean?  Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic farming is also a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way of farming which is often done without any government subsidies.  And much to my surprise, organic produce often tastes much better than traditionally grown fare.

What items are best to buy organic versions of?  I have often read that if you can’t afford to buy everything organic, make sure to purchase organic milk, eggs, cheese and meat.  Luckily, this isn’t an issue with my family, but may be with yours.  Pesticide residue from the animal’s feed concentrates and resides in the animal’s fat, so eating a little animal fat means you are ingesting a much higher concentration of pesticide than you would in produce.  Also, non-organically raised animals are often fed antibiotics, growth hormones and ground up parts of other dead animals – leading to possible “mad cow disease” and antibiotic resistant bacteria.  If I ate animal products, I would make sure they were organic – regardless of the cost.

What produce is best to buy organic?  Since most of us can’t afford to buy all organic, all of the time, we need a way to discern which items are the best “value” for our food dollars.  Luckily, studies were conducted on 45 different varieties of fruits and vegetables to determine which items carried the highest concentration of pesticides.  The results of the study can be found here.  Based on the studies done, some items are clearly worth paying more for than others. By carefully reviewing the chart, I make sure my non-organic choices are near the bottom of the list.  I won’t scrimp any longer on non-organic peaches, strawberries, apples, potatoes, celery and bell peppers, but I might forgo paying an up charge to buy organic onions, bananas and avocados.

What if I can’t afford to buy anything organic?  Many times we have been faced with financial hardships which have forced our family to watch and agonize over every penny spent.  Organic produce of any kind was just not on our list.  During those times, I did the best I could and let God take care of the rest.  I continued to search for sales on organic produce, including searching the discount bins of markets and co-ops.  And I knew that serving my children a wide variety of fruits and vegetables was still healthy for them – even if it wasn’t organic.

Where can I get good deals on organic produce?  Sometimes, good deals come in the strangest places and often our local grocer or health food store has less expensive organic choices than do traditional markets.  Large grocers will now often sell their own brand of organic items at about the same price as non-organic alternatives.  Local farmer’s markets where you buy direct from the farmer, are also often good places to find less expensive organic fare.  Ask friends and acquaintances if they know of any co-ops where families pool their buying power to get organic groceries at near wholesale cost.  It may take a little work, a little extra driving and a little extra planning, but finding deals on organic fare is worth the effort.

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