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Does It Ever Pay to Buy Organic?

  • Mary Hunt Debt-Proof Living
  • 2006 22 May
Does It Ever Pay to Buy Organic?

Call me cynical, but when I read the word "organic" on anything in the grocery store, what I really see are a few extra dollar signs.

On average, simply calling something organic can increase the price by half at best. And at the worst, you can easily end up paying 100 percent more—especially if that label is on milk or meat.

There was a time I would have insisted that we’re wasting our money buying organic because there is no proof that conventionally produced food pose no health risks of any consequence. But I can no longer suggest such a thing.

First, a growing body of research shows that pesticides and other contaminants are more prevalent in our food, our bodies and the environment than we thought previously.

Second, there are increasingly more ways to add organic products to your grocery cart without breaking the bank. The secret is to know when it is important to consider organic and when it makes no difference.

Dairy products, meat and produce are the three grocery areas of concern. But not all items in these supermarket departments are problematic when produced conventionally.

Apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, strawberries, spinach, peaches, milk, chicken and beef absorb significant quantities of pesticides and chemicals when produced conventionally. These are items that warrant your consideration when produced organically.

Not so with another list of food items that do not absorb the bad stuff so readily. In fact there is little difference between organically produced and conventionally-produced in the items that follow and therefore not worth the money: processed foods, cauliflower, sweet corn, broccoli, asparagus, mangoes and sweet peas.

Never pay extra for "organic" fish or seafood. There are not USDA regulations in place, possibly because you cannot control what gets into fish, even when they are "farm raised." If you see organic-labeling on fish or seafood, consider that a marketing ploy by the producer. It is meaningless.

Equally silly are references to "organic" on cosmetics and hair products. Because there are no regulations, a company can put "organic" on the label if there is one ingredient out of 100 that can be considered such. All the rest can be chemicals.

Buy cheap

Comparison shop. Many supermarkets are increasing their organic offerings. When it comes to fresh produce, remember that you’ll save by buying it in season.

Stay local. You can find organic growers at most farmers markets. A 2002 USDA study found that about 40 percent of those farmers don’t charge a premium for their organic products. For listings of local farmers markets and other sources, go to or

Join a team. Look for a community-supported organic farm in your area. When you join you will get a weekly supply of produce from spring through fall. You’ll pay from $300 to $500 for a family of four for the season. Go to for a list of farms.

By mail. National providers will ship items such as organic beef ( Some local businesses, such as FreshDirect ( in the New York City area and Pioneer Organics ( in the Pacific Northwest, offer home deliveries. Other helpful sites are at and

To your health!

Know your labels

Healthy-sounding labels can be confusing, misleading and sometimes completely meaningless! Knowing what the law allows when it comes to labeling food items will help you to know when buying organic pays and when it doesn’t.

These labels are meaningful

"100% Organic." No synthetic ingredients are allowed by law. Also, production processes must meet federal organic standards and must have been independently verified by accredited inspectors.

"Organic." At least 95 percent of ingredients are organically produced. This means 5 percent aren’t and can be synthetic ingredients. Exception: Organic labels on seafood are meaningless because the USDA has issued no standards when it comes to fish and shellfish.

"Made with Organic Ingredients." At least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. The remaining 30 percent must come from the USDA’s approved list.

These are meaningless

"Free-range" or "free-roaming." This label is getting more common on eggs, chicken and other meat. It suggests the animal live outdoors, grazing and roaming freely. In truth, if a chicken coop door is left ajar for just 5 minutes a day—regardless of whether the chickens went outside—the animals’ meat and eggs could legally be labeled "free-range."

"Natural" or "All Natural." This label does not mean organic. No standard definition exists for this term except when it is applied to meat and poultry products. In that case the USDA defines natural as not containing any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives or synthetic ingredients. And the claim is not verified. The producer or manufacturer alone decides whether to use it.


"Debt-Proof Living" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt. What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt. Today, "Debt-Proof Living" is read by close to 100,000 cheapskates. Click here to subscribe.