How to Get the Biggest Health Bang for Your Organic Food Buck

Organic labelOrganic food confuses me. On the one hand, I want to eat healthily. At the same time, I need to stay within a budget. As a result, only a portion of my groceries can be organic, so I have to be deliberate in my choices. I'm uncomfortable eating meat riddled with antibiotics, so I prioritize organic beef and chicken. But that adds up quickly, leaving me only a few dollars for organic produce. The rest of my fruit and veggies are grown with pesticides, unfortunately.

I realized recently that I had no idea if that's the right approach -- choosing organic meat over organic produce. Nor did I know if all fruits and vegetables respond to pesticides the same way.

To learn how best to maximize the health benefits of my organic food budget, I contacted Marion Nestle, a professor both in the departments of sociology and of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. Her first suggestion: That where cows are concerned, I worry less about the beef and more about the milk. "Milk is a good starter food for organics," she says, "since the effects of pesticides in kids are likely to be worse than in adults, and kids drink proportionally more milk."

Sara Sciammacco, press secretary at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that uses research "to protect public health and the environment," agrees with Nestle on the value of organic milk. "Buy organic dairy to avoid the added hormones and antibiotics."

"After [milk], it's foods where pesticides can't easily be washed off, like strawberries and raspberries," says Nestle. The EWG offers a free, downloadable one-pager to assist in navigating the tricky science of buying safer produce. The organization's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce details the "Dirty Dozen" -- the 12 fruits and vegetables that absorb the most pesticides -- as well as the "Clean 15" types of produce that absorb fewer chemicals. Given that I can't buy exclusively organic produce, it's very helpful to know that I should prioritize apples, for example, since 98% of non-organic apples have pesticides, while I can relax on the onions, as less than 1% do.



As for meat, there are fewer hard and fast rules. "Organic meat is fed organic feed," Nestle explains, "and the animals are supposed to have access to outdoors" -- as opposed to being confined in tiny pens -- "and the animals are not fed antibiotics or hormones. People have to decide for themselves how much these things matter."

While EWG also recognizes that meat consumption is a personal decision, the organization does suggest ways to maximize the bang for your organic buck. "We would suggest people who have a meat-heavy diet reduce the amount of it they eat," says Sciammacco, "and then choose grass-fed meat when they do buy it. This way, they avoid the antibiotics and added hormones that come with corn-fed livestock, and when you buy less meat overall, you can afford healthier, greener meat."

What organic foods are you most likely to buy?
Produce1 (16.7%)
Meat1 (16.7%)
Milk and other drinks1 (16.7%)
Snacks and other shelf foods1 (16.7%)
I buy as much organic as possible1 (16.7%)
I do not buy organic1 (16.7%)
Another way to reduce the cost of organic food is to buy locally grown and raised, as these foods don't have high transportation costs factored into their prices. To find family farms and farmers markets near you, check out Local Harvest, a nonprofit organization that has a searchable database of locally produced food across the United States.

Buying produce while it's in season also helps to stretch your dollar further. As Sciammacco explains, in-season produce "is more likely to be grown domestically, where there are tighter restrictions on organophosphate pesticide use." If you're like me and have no idea about the growing cycle, which varies by region, check out Sustainable Table, a site that lists seasonal produce by geography.

And don't fall for branding traps such as products labeled "natural." As my colleague Regina Lewis recently reported, "natural," doesn't have an official definition beyond excluding a handful of especially noxious, artificial ingredients. Even items that claim to be "made with organic products" are allowed to contain up to 30% non-organic ingredients. With organics, you should go big or go home: Buy products that have the USDA's organic seal of approval, which are a minimum of 95% organic. Otherwise, don't bother paying more for the misleading packaging.

It's also worth doing your homework on prices. Organic produce may cost more than conventional, but venue matters. In May 2010, students from Seattle University's Albers School of Business compared the prices on more than 30 organic items at farmers markets and nearby grocery stores: The average price of the organic items at the farmer's market was anywhere from $0.47 to $0.73 less per pound, and a much wider variety of items were available.

According to the Neighborhood Farmers' Market Alliance, "one student made the comparison especially clear by preparing a salad from spinach, mustard greens, asparagus, apple, carrot, onion, and chives, and showing that the farmers market salad cost 25% less than one from the produce aisle. In addition, the student noted that while 100% of the ingredients of the Farmers Market salad were from Washington, the other stores could only match with between 5% and 17% locally sourced ingredients overall (14%-43% of the salad list)."

Ultimately, however, whether or not you buy organic food is less important than buying healthy food. As Nestle says, "It's way more important to eat vegetables, whether or not they are organic."

Loren Berlin is a columnist at She can be reached at You can follow her on Twitter @LorenBerlin, and become a fan on Facebook.

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While I'd rather not eat pesticides either, we should choose organic and/or sustainably farmed foods and local foods for many, many more reasons than avoiding pesticides. Same goes for antibiotics in our meat and milk...the question you should really ask is why are these substances being used? I want to avoid products that contain them because of the further implications as well.

"As Nestle says, 'It's way more important to eat vegetables, whether or not they are organic.'"

Well, yesish. Eating them is better than not eating them, but organically/sustainably/locally-grown vegetables are significantly better for you, and it has little to do with lack of pesticides. Local, sustainable foods have a higher nutritional value because they aren't picked/harvested too early for shipment 1500 away...they aren't grown to have fewer beneficial nutrients than they would otherwise, because those nutrients would cause them to go rancid in said shipping...they're not grown out of soil that's depleted to achieve monoculture (which is the main reason we even need to use pesticides)...the animals haven't been fed substances (corn) they didn't evolve to eat, so they're sick and pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive...etc.

It's time the government stopped subsidizing food that's crap so that anyone, regardless of their financial situation, can afford to eat food that is truly good for them.

August 17 2011 at 1:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's more than just about wanting to avoid pesticides. It's about wanting to avoid genetically modified foods as well. Even though corn may use few pesticides, it has an 80% chance that it's modified, which means the Bt bacteria is IN the whole plant. In a recent study at Sherbrooke University in Canada, for the first time ever Bt is showing up in the blood of the vast majority of pregnant women and their fetuses. These women ate conventional diets. What are the consequences of this? No one knows, but I guarantee it can't be good. Since GM foods have hit the markets in the 1990s, food allergies and sensitivities have skyrocketed, and the decline of honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators has accelerated.... is there a connection? Most likely in my book.

July 31 2011 at 7:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In order to help consumers easily identify which fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of pesticides we developed an iPhone app called Farmanac. It uses data from Environmental Working Group to provide recommendations for when to buy organic or if you can save money and be just as safe opting for conventional produce. Additionally our app will tell you when produce is in season locally, how to know when an item is ripe and methods for storing produce once you’re back at home.

Take a look and let us know what you think:

July 28 2011 at 2:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In response to the Organic products, if anyone is interested in going Organic. There is a website where you can order Organic, Chemical free products on line and have them shipped to your house. Plus if you desire you can have a business of your own. Remember, this is and is going to be a booming business, because face it, we are all going green eventually. But you need to check this out and see how this fits you.

July 28 2011 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Laurie A. Mack-Kyle

@Jibber Jabber - It is necessary to eat all of the foods (including protein) in the food groups in order to be healthy. Most Americans are not healthy and that is not because of protein, it is because of junk food, lack of exercise, healthy relationships and lack of sleep. I did read the "China Study" and it is one more book, movie that has been written in order to make money and scare people. The food guidelines have been around for a long time and our bodies do need the nutrients from every type of food to be healthy. We must remember that genetics and family history play a role in what happens to our bodies, and that is why we must take charge of eating from each food group. If you are not eating protein in your diet, you are not getting what you want. It is important to eat beans, but it is difficult to eat enough beans and other foods in order to get the same healthy effect protein provides in the metabolism and restoration of our bodies, especially people that work out.

July 28 2011 at 9:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jibber Jabber

Watch the movie "forks over knives" that was just at the theater. If your eating any kind of animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) you have bigger problems. Or you can read "The China Study". Animal Protien is what is killing us! Time to wake up herd follower.

July 28 2011 at 9:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott Bascom

Like, MS Berlin, I want my famiy to consume a safe, healthy, and nutritious diet. I have a PhD in animal nutrition. I was required to take courses in both animal and human nutrition to complete my PhD program. We make choices on which foods to buy for our family based on facts and scientific information.

When it comes to meat and milk both conventionally raised and organically raised cows produce safe, healthy, nutritious milk. In fact, if you were to test milk from an organic dairy and a conventional dairy farm and run it through extensive testing you would not be able to distinguish which one was organic and which one was conventional. These types of studies have been conducted.

The regulations for meat and milk to be sold are very strict therefore it is highly unlikely that the meat or milk in the grocery store would have even a trace of antibiotics. Producers that attempt to sell meat or milk that contains antibiotics are subject to a significant economic penalty.

I respect individuals rights to choose to buy organic or conventionally produced food. Our family chooses to purchase the conventional products because we get the "Biggest Health Bang" for our buck.

July 26 2011 at 12:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Laurie A. Mack-Kyle

I am a dairy producer in Wisconsin and a nutritionist. My husband and I produce wholesome quality milk and milk products on our 100-cow traditional dairy farm that we feel comfortable serving our own two children. We pride ourselves on cow comfort and consistency and confidentially know that consumers are getting an economically safe product that provides 9 essential vitamins and minerals that cannot be duplicated by any other product. It is important to remember that dairy products are the most highly-regulated foods in the industry and dairy farmers follow strict guidelines every day 24/7. We have many people that help us to ensure that our dairy animals are well taken care of. Just like moms take their children for well checks, we have a veterinarian at our dairy twice a month for well checks. We have a nutritionist that visits our dairy once a week to make sure the girl's diet is well-balanced and we also have a hoof trimmer that makes sure their feet are well taken care of, which is very similar to women getting pedicures. We only give our girls an antibiotic when it is absolutely necessary and we do not milk that individual cow in the tank until the cow tests negative for the antibiotic. If a dairy producer would include a cow in the tank that had antibiotics in their system the milk hauler would find it and the dairy producer would be financially responsible for the entire tank, which would have to be disposed of. It would financially ruin a producer to have to be a $10,000 tanker load of milk. Our girls are in a compost barn, which means that we combine manure and sawdust and it provides an amazingly soft bed when they lay down. We provide water tanks at each end of our open-air 72X186 foot dairy barn with "Big Ass Fans" that circulate air every day, even in the Wisconsin winters. Our girls are free to run on pasture when they feel like it and get plenty of exercise every day. Our nutritionist balances a healthy-eating plan for our girls which is mixed in a blender that includes hay, corn, cotton seed, bread, and protein that is easily absorbed by the cow's four stomachs. Our girls eat and drink their water right after they are milked twice a day and follow a pattern of laying down immediately after that. Whenever you see a cow laying down chewing their cud they are in the process of making milk. The dairy farmer in our house watches his girls very carefully and considers himself to be the "cow whisperer" of our county. Take the time to get to know a dairy farmer in your area and teach your children where their food comes from. Dairy producers pride themselves in being stewards of the land and shepherds of their animals. Look us up at!

July 26 2011 at 7:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a dairy farmer, I find this article really interesting. I'm glad so many people are concerned with where their food comes from. Although we do not farm organically, I can assure that there are several safeguards in place to ensure that the milk you buy at the grocery store is safe, regardless of which method of production is employed. First, on our farm, we keep strict records of medication administered. The milk from cows that have been treated is dumped and does not go into the tank with the milk we sell. Each antibiotic has a strict withdrawal time that must be followed. In other words, right on the bottle of medicine, it says how many days need to pass before the milk is safe for human consumption. Secondly, we test the milk with test strips after the withdrawal time has elapsed to make sure that there is no antibiotic residue in the milk. Next, the milk is sampled when it is picked up at our farm to take to the bottling plant. If there is a trace of any foreign matter, the entire tank is dumped. That's a large amount of profit down the drain! You can bet that we want to make sure it's safe to drink. Finally, milk is tested again at the bottling plant. Milk is one of the most regulated foods in the United States.

As dairy farmers, we want to make sure we take every precaution possible to make sure we're producing a quality product. Although my family does not farm organically, we don't over-administer medication either. We use it responsibly and work with our veterinarian to treat our cows appropriately and only when necessary. Buying organic food is an option, but please don't feel like it's the only safe option. Remember that there is no scientific evidence concluding that organic dairy products are safer or healthier than conventional dairy products.

July 25 2011 at 8:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a dietitian who works for the dairy council, I would like to clarify the misleading info about milk. Both regular and organic milk is tested to make sure it’s free of antibiotics. When it comes to hormones, both organic and regular milk naturally contain very low levels. And, USDA testing shows that milk ranks among the lowest of all agricultural products in pesticide residues. So while organic milk is certainly a good choice, all varieties of milk are safe, wholesome and nutrient-rich.

July 25 2011 at 6:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply