How to Get the Benefits of Organic Foods Without Paying Through the Nose

Nearly all frugal cooks struggle with the "organic foods" question. We all want to eat healthy, environmentally friendly food, but is the significant extra cost of organic food really worth it?

I've got good new for you. You can capture almost all of the benefits of going organic without paying up for inflated organic food prices. All you have to do is make a few minor changes in how you purchase and handle the produce you already buy.

Here's how:

1) Don't think organic, think local.

When we think about the benefits of organic food, the environmental impact of pesticides usually comes to mind first. However, there is an even bigger negative environmental impact embedded in your produce that most shoppers don't even consider: transport costs. Transport costs drive up the both the price and the carbon footprint of your food. If you can source a meaningful portion of your food from farms within 100-200 miles of your home, you will save money and have a positive impact on the environment.

2) Don't assume that food lacking an organic label is grown unethically or unhealthily.

Many farmers find it extremely burdensome to meet all the government requirements to qualify for organic labeling. If you take a bit of time to visit with the growers and vendors at local farmer's markets in your area, you may find they grow their food more sustainably and responsibly than the letter of the law.

On the other hand, if you insist on having an official-looking little "organic" sticker on your produce, you'll quite often pay a 50-100% premium, and yet your food may still be trucked in from thousands of miles away with a significant carbon footprint. Don't fixate on a little magic sticker. Instead, find opportunities to buy local and support responsible food growers in your region.

3) Local means in season and cheap.

Everybody knows that in-season produce is the cheapest produce. Which brings us to an enormous and underappreciated advantage of going local: when you buy your produce locally, you're guaranteed that all your fruits and veggies will be in season--because that's the only time they grow! Your produce will always be at its cheapest and most plentiful.

Unfortunately, consumers increasingly expect to see tomatoes, apples, citrus and many other fruits and vegetables available year round in their grocery stores. And those consumers who fixate on magic organic stickers and who want to buy out-of-season produce are simply asking to be separated from their money.

Don't get fooled by the phony reality of your grocery store. It's not normal, quite frankly, for a North American shopper to buy apples in the spring and citrus fruit in the late summer (and vice versa for my readers Down Under). Instead, take advantage of seasonal foods as they appear in your grocery store over the course of the year. You'll pay significantly less and you'll enjoy higher quality food.

4) For many fruits and vegetables, the benefits of going organic are negligible.

Many fruits and vegetables, because of their fundamental structure, are equally healthy whether they're grown organically or not. Fruits and vegetables with thick rinds or peels (melons, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, etc.) will be well-protected from any pesticides because you remove the rind before eating. Likewise, fruits and veggies that you peel or husk (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, corn, onions, garlic, etc.) will have several layers of protection between the food and any pesticides.

Furthermore, many sturdy vegetables (turnips, beets, collards, kale, parsley, etc.) don't require much in the way of pesticides, simply because they are already bug resistant and extremely hardy.

Finally, with fruits or vegetables where you eat the skin (apples or green bell peppers, etc.), just take care to wash the produce carefully with a scratchy sponge and warm soapy water. This will eliminate any potential pesticides from the food, allowing you to eat it entirely safely.

Don't buy organic just to buy organic! You can get most of the benefits--and avoid all of the extra costs--by following these four simple tips.

Readers, what solutions would you add to the conversation? Do you pay extra for organic produce? Why or why not?

A different version of this post ran several months ago in the Tech Savvy Mama blog.

Related Posts:
Does Healthy Eating Really Cost Too Much? A Blogger Roundtable
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto
How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer
Scarred For Life By a Food Industry Job

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Diane said...

#2 is my pet peeve. I buy a lot of food from local Hmong farmers. They don't certify organic, but use few chemicals to grow their produce. Many farmers are like them & don't want to jump through hoops, and deal with the significant $$$ to get certified.

The only things I adamantly feel I must buy official organic are berries.

ilikecoffee said...

This has been something I've been thinking about recently. I was blessed to buy into a local farm co-op in which I get 5lbs of veggies from their farm every week for 24 weeks. Only the in-season veggies are available, and they're all from the local family farm. score!

Kira said...

I don't buy a lot of organic produce, but I have started buying organic milk and cage-free/organic eggs. I grew up going to the Farmer's Market with my dad, eating all kinds of fruit and vegetables, and none of it was organic, but all of it was very, very tasty!

Priscilla said...

I soak grapes and berries in a vinegar/water mixture for a few minutes before gently going over them with my hands or a sponge. Vinegar is my all around cleanser and a quick soak helps eliminate any trace of dirt or pesticides remaining on the fruit skin. Although I haven't had any scientific proof that it's better than a quick rinse, it makes me feel better to clean the fruit as much as I can!

I haven't bought into a CSA, but am considering a few. My husband is a meat/potatoes type of guy and I think getting him to eat all those veggies would be a challenge.

Dave at said...

Local and fresh are the key. We bought a deep freeze and a vacuum sealer just so we can take advantage of buying food from local farmers when it's cheap and abundant. The frozen storage means we can split a pastured cow from my brother-in-laws farm for a whole lot less that what factory meat would cost us.

Melissa said...

This post deserves a huge amen! I can confidently say that not only have I learned these lessons, but putting them into practice was one of the most socially and environmentally responsible things I've done in my cooking career. And frugal too, which makes it even better for me!

Emmy said...

Oh, Daniel. I know you were focusing on the immediate health benefits when writing this post - have you considered long-term? When I saw you list corn, one of the notoriously genetically-modified vegetables, I died a little death. While Monsanto may not be directly involved with consumer corn (I think they're more about feed corn at this point), the birds and the bees must have missed the memo. And, if you dig a little on the internet, or just watch The Future of Food on hulu, you'll see that eating organic is a very, VERY big deal. We may not see the ramifications for 10 years, but believe that they're going to be devastating.

We live well below the poverty level and still manage to buy 75% organic foods.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the good comments so far.

Diane, regarding berries, I think most people will agree that they tend to absorb chemicals and pesticides more readily than other produce. This is why many people prefer going organic there.

Also, Emily, you make a good point, but the purpose of this post was to show readers how they can find a balance between the benefits of organic food with the (often inordinate) extra costs.

Readers will have to decide for themselves how much to bias their produce purchasing toward organic. The simple fact that you've decided to go 75% organic (and not 100%) is further proof of this point.

My goal for this post was to show that you can capture many of these benefits already without the added cost.


Suzanne said...

I think you make many good points here, Daniel, but the Environmental Working Group just came out with their new list of the least and most pesticide-ridden fruits and veggies (the "Clean 15" and "Dirty Dozen," respectively), and kale and collard greens were listed among the "Dirty Dozen"--foods that you should definitely buy organic.

Also, simply washing the fruits and veggies will NOT eliminate the pesticide residue, according to EWG. See the full article from here:

Daniel said...

Hi Suzanne, thanks for sharing.

I have to say though, I'd really like to see much more detail of the EWG study's methodology. For one thing, it looks like they piggybacked their conclusions off of data from a separate government study, and didn't gather the data themselves.

Further, where's the data on relative magnitude of the exposure? What are the actual effects of the chemicals? And are there other studies that back this one up and can replicate its findings?

We are exposed to chemicals every day--all the time. Is the "exposure" from eating these foods actually meaningful? The government study that this study piggybacks off of also cites nuclear fallout, uranium mining and (wait for it...) cellphone use as "risks." Are there any studies that link eating specific foods to health problems later, and are those risks at all meaningful when compared to other, more significant, sources of contamination?

Finally, not to make light of this study, which the EWG puts out there in total sincerity, but I've been eating collards for years and never had a problem. You'd think if the chemical levels were truly as high as this organization suggests, then I should have already experienced some noticeable symptoms or reactions, like allergies or headaches or digestive distress. Do I really have to put down my regular non-organic collard greens and run screaming over to the organic section?

Not to go too overboard, but these are the types of questions I instinctively ask when I see a lightly-cited study like this appear. Thanks for your comment.