Is Organic Produce Worth the Extra Cost?

sustainable organic produce in market
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As though food weren’t costly enough — with prices expected to continue soaring throughout the year — consumers are faced with an expensive dilemma: Do you pay more to buy organic?

This question is especially pressing in the produce aisle, where items are divided into two categories: organic and non-organic. It’s an absurdly loaded question, because who wouldn’t want the ostensibly better version of a vegetable or fruit? 

If cost weren’t a barrier, the choice would be so obvious as to potentially wipe out the profitability of “regular” produce. Because again, who doesn’t want the good stuff?

Though dismal, there are reasons organic produce is dreadfully more expensive than conventional produce. The price hike ties to the fact that organic requires greater labor efforts than non-organic. Additionally, organic produce is inherently small in volume and can’t be churned out by the masses. 

Upon understanding why organic produce is costlier than its conventional twin, we must ask, “When is it imperative to shell out the extra bucks for organic? What happens to our health if we can’t afford to?”

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Understanding What ‘Organic’ Means 

Yes, “organic” has become a hot buzzword, but it’s not just marketing hype — it has genuine meaning in the realm of wellness. 

“What makes organic foods ‘healthier’ is a matter of what they do not contain, rather than what they do,” said Jennifer Kaplan, director of sustainability at Miyoko’s Creamery. “This is because, in general, the organic requirements for food signify that food is produced without the use of antibiotics or other prohibited synthetic production inputs (e.g., synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.) and without genetically engineered seeds (GMOs), ionizing radiation and sewage sludge.” 

Whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods is still not clear. 

“In terms of nutritiousness, there is a consensus that organic foods do not contain more nutrients than conventionally grown food,” Kaplan said. “There is some evidence to suggest that consuming organic food may reduce the risk of allergic diseases and obesity. Still, the evidence is not conclusive since consumers of organic food tend to have healthier lifestyles overall.

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“Also, organic dairy products, and perhaps even organic meats, have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products. All in all, it is generally believed that these differences are not of critical nutritional significance.”

Eating organic may not be more nutritious than eating conventional, but it can be safer.

“Organic diets are known to lead to less exposure to harmful synthetic chemicals and pesticides,” Kaplan said. “Therefore, eating organic is advantageous because residues in conventional fruits and vegetables constitute the primary source of human exposure to agricultural chemicals and pesticides. These chemicals can lead to a variety of health-related issues.” 

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Foods Health Experts Buy ‘Organic’ 

If you can afford to buy all organic, then unequivocally you should do so. But if financial restraints corner you into being more selective, consider which produce items you should always buy organic. 

Anything on the dirty dozen list or with a thinner skin is best purchased organic. 

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“The EWG recommends buying organic strawberries, spinach, kale, collard and mustard greens, nectarines, apples, grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, peppers (both bell and hot), celery and tomatoes,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at DealNews. “Often these are the ones that will either come into contact with more pesticides in general or, because of their thin skin, may have pesticides leach into the food itself. So even if you aren’t eating the skin, you may still be ingesting pesticides if you don’t purchase organic.”

Also, potatoes. 

“Potatoes are always worth paying extra for, as they’re particularly susceptible to blight and insects and as such are almost always treated with pesticides,” said Christina Russo, creative director of the Kitchen Community. “The only way to guarantee that they’re not is to ensure that they buy the organic variety.” 

Foods That Are OK To Buy Non-Organic 

Anything with a thicker skin or rind that will be removed anyway is generally safe to buy non-organic. 

“So think things like bananas, citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and limes, avocados, pineapple and melons,” Ramhold said. “However, even some items with thinner skins are on the so-called Clean 15 from the EWG — including sweet corn, onions, papaya, frozen sweet peas, eggplant, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, kiwi, cauliflower and mushrooms — as these are exposed to fewer pesticides than other types of produce.”

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Honestly? Just Eat More Fruits and Vegetables 

Though certain produce items are best purchased organic, ultimately one must not give that ‘organic’ sticker too much power.  

“I always recommend to people to just eat more fruits and vegetables and not get so hung up on if it’s organic or not,” said Carolina Sánchez-Hervás, founder of Carolina Sanchez Food & Lifestyle Consulting. “Most people don’t eat enough produce as it is, so by worrying about if it’s organic or not, many people limit themselves even further.”

Shop Farmers Markets — and Ask, ‘Do You Spray?’ 

If buying organic is a priority for you but your budget won’t permit the “splurge,” your best bet is to visit farmers markets and ask vendors how they grow and treat their produce. 

“I always tell customers, ‘Don’t ask if a farmer is certified organic; ask if they spray,'” said Kimberly Fox, a recipe developer with an M.S. in food science from the University of Minnesota who previously worked at the Institute of Global Food Security in Northern Ireland.

“Most times,” Fox said, “the farmer will say whether they spray or not; and, if they did spray, they will tell you what they use and how many times they sprayed.”  

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The Lowdown on Pesticides 

Though notoriously icky, pesticides aren’t necessarily harmful to humans, provided they’re applied appropriately and consumed in extremely small doses. And, of course, you must rinse your produce thoroughly. 

“All pesticides that are approved by the FDA are considered safe to use and won’t negatively impact health,” Fox said. “These studies are based on a maximum residue limit (MRL) that can legally be found in fruits and vegetables.”

That said, consumers do need to be wary of overdoing one type of produce that has been treated with pesticides. 

“For example, if someone really likes berries and that’s all they eat, then this could pose a higher health risk to the customer because they are probably eating more berries — and in effect more pesticides — than what was tested for when establishing the safety of the pesticide,” Fox said. “In this case, spending the extra money and finding organic berries is most likely worth it.” 

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About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.
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