organic strawberries

You've heard about the benefits of buying organic, but you're not sure if organic fruits, veggies, cereals, and other products are worth the higher price tag. Make your decision easier by learning more about the debate surrounding organic products. It's helpful to understand what it means when a particular item carries an "organic" label and why organic food might cost a little more. Once you consider all these factors, you'll be in a better position to decide for yourself.

What Is "Organic" Food, Anyway?
Organic foods, as opposed to conventional foods, are grown without using:

  • Most conventional pesticides
  • Fertilizers that contain synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge
  • Radiation
  • Bioengineering, which produces genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program, 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."

Why Does Organic Food Cost More?
There are a number of reasons that organic foods are more expensive. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that one of the main reasons is that the supply of organic foods is limited compared to the demand. This means that organic suppliers can charge more and customers will still be willing purchase organic food. The FAO lists a number of additional reasons that organic food is more expensive:

  • Production Costs: Because organic foods don't use chemicals and synthetic pesticides, it takes more labor to grow them. Organic farmers must handle many tasks by hand - like weeding - while conventional farmers can use herbicides and pesticides. The cost of fertilizing organic crops is also higher. Conventional farmers may use chemical fertilizers and sewage sludge on their crops. Organic farmers must use pricier fertilizers, like compost.
  • Post-harvest costs: Organic produce requires some additional shipping and handling costs after it has been harvested. This prevents cross-contamination with conventional crops.
  • Marketing and Distribution: Organic crops tend to be produced in smaller quantities than conventional crops. But it still requires just as much fuel to get them to your supermarket. Since the volume of fruits and vegetables is lower, marketing and distribution costs are higher per item.

In addition to these costs, organic farmers must pay fees to complete the USDA's organic certification process. Farmers can only call their produce "organic" if they meet certain quality standards. They must also provide detailed records of their facilities and production methods.

Should You Buy Organic?
According to a recent review of the evidence, organic produce typically isn't any better for you than conventional varieties. You won't get any extra vitamins or nutrients from going organic. However, researchers from Stanford and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System did find some benefits: Organic options may live up to their claim of having lower exposure to pesticide residue.

So is this benefit worth the extra cost? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) maintains that eating a diet rich in both fruits and vegetables is what's most important. In fact, the EWG states that the health benefits of eating conventional fruits and veggies may outweigh the risks of consuming pesticides. However, certain foods may be more contaminated than others. The EWG states that by choosing organic for the 12 most pesticide-contaminated fruits and veggies, you can significantly lower your pesticide intake:

  • Apples
  • Lettuce
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Peaches
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Blueberries
  • Nectarines
  • Potatoes

Keep the Big Picture in Mind
For certain items, you may decide to splurge and go organic. But remember, it's always better to eat more fruits and veggies than to avoid them. Even if your produce doesn't carry a special certification, it's still chockfull of nutrients. Be strategic when considering if it's worth the extra price to buy certain items organic. If you focus on maintaining a well-rounded diet, high in fruits and vegetables, your body is sure to thank you.