Which Food to Buy Organic (and How to Spend Less When You Do)

Our expert advice can help you decide what’s most important to buy organic and how to save money when you do

By Janet Lee

Sue Schaefer, 57, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., is facing a conundrum. “I’m a thrifty shopper, but I prefer to buy organic,” she says. “I just feel better when I eat organic.” Because organic products are usually more expensive than their conventional counterparts, she heads to less pricey stores that sell organic food. Even so, inflation is exacting a toll. “We used to buy organic eggs when it was just a dollar difference, but now it’s several dollars’ difference.”

With overall food prices up almost 9 percent from the end of March 2021 to the end of March 2022, Schaefer isn’t alone in eyeing her grocery list more carefully. In a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,224 U.S. adults in April (PDF), 43 percent of those who said they had bought organic food in the past are now doing so slightly or much less often than they used to.

There are ways to corral costs, however, such as making informed choices on what to buy organic and what to buy conventional. You can also find ways to trim prices when you do purchase organic groceries. For instance, the big-box and discount stores (like Aldi and Costco ) that Schaefer often shops at may indeed offer lower prices on organics. Keep reading to find out how to pick wisely so that you can cushion the inflationary hit to your wallet and still get the biggest benefits of organic food for yourself and the planet.

What You Really Get From Organic Food

Organic can be a loaded term. “There’s a lot of confusion about what it means,” says Kathryn MacLean, RD, a dietitian with UC Davis Health Food and Nutrition Services in California. In CR’s survey, 42 percent of Americans said they thought organic food was more nutritious, and 66 percent thought it was better at limiting their exposure to pesticides or fertilizers.

What’s true? The rules for using the USDA Organic seal on food include no use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Those that are allowed are tightly regulated, are permitted only when other methods have failed, and must be shown to be safe for people. Organic food is also grown without genetically modified organisms or the ionizing irradiation sometimes used for pest control. For meat, poultry, dairy, or eggs, animals are given only organic feed and raised without antibiotics or added hormones in “living areas that encourage the health and natural behaviors of animals,” says a Department of Agriculture fact sheet. But it can be tough to tell what’s fact and what’s myth when it comes to the benefits you may have heard about. Here’s the lowdown on four common questions.

Is Organic Healthier?
That depends. “In general, the protein, fat, and carbohydrates are the same as those in conventional foods,” MacLean says. “The vitamin and mineral content changes are pretty negligible as well.” A 2014 analysis of 343 studies, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic produce contained higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants than conventional produce did. Other studies have found no significant differences.

Bringing produce, whether conventional or organic, from a distance can have a negative impact on nutrients, says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine in Orono. And the U.S. imports organic food from many countries—almost 100 in 2021, according to Reana Kovalcik, director of public affairs at the Organic Trade Association.

Does It Have Fewer Pesticides?
Yes. A small study published in Environmental Research in 2019 revealed that people who switched from a conventional diet to an organic one had lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine. And while what we know about the harm of synthetic pesticides is limited, the Environmental Protection Agency says agricultural pesticide exposure has been associated with asthma, bronchitis, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, and certain cancers. In addition, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 reported a higher risk of dying from any cause as well as from cardiovascular disease in people with the highest levels of pyrethroid pesticide metabolites in their urine. Some research also suggests that children with greater exposure to certain pesticides are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and that synthetic pesticides may disrupt our endocrine systems, which are responsible for hormone regulation.

Is Organic Better for the Environment?
Yes. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can damage soil and pollute water. “Many of the pesticides and synthetic forms of fertilizer, if not managed and fine-tuned, often end up in our water and even in our fish,” says Garry Stephenson, PhD, a professor in the department of crop and soil science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Nitrogen-based fertilizer, often used in conventional agriculture, is a major contributor to air and water pollution, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

These days, however, some conventional farmers are turning to methods that spare the environment. For instance, some are switching to organic-friendly fertilizer, says Matt Ryan, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

When it comes to farm animals, organic rules call for them to have year-round outdoor access and to be raised on organic land, and for grazing animals like cattle to have access to organic pastures at least 120 days a year. Space to exercise is required, but animals don’t have to get a certain amount of space or never be caged, and overall, animal welfare requirements for USDA Organic certification are minimal.

Do the Animals Receive Any Antibiotics?
Generally, no, with the exception of chickens and turkeys still in the egg and on their first day of life. But routine antibiotics are still widely used in conventional beef and poultry, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections. “That means infections [in animals and people] that used to be easily cured may have the potential to become serious, even life-threatening,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at CR.

Reap the Benefits of Organic for Less

There are a slew of ways to save on organics or find nonorganic items with similar health and environmental advantages. A shopping list can keep you from overbuying. To find the best deals, check unit prices, scan circulars, and search for coupons at sites like Coupon Cabin and Passion for Savings, or the websites of organic food manufacturers. Some, like Amy’s Kitchen and Stonyfield Farm, offer coupons for joining their newsletter lists. Consider the following, too:

Be Picky
“You can make choices on what to buy organic and what to buy that’s conventional based on factors like what’s available, what’s most important to you, and cost,” Rogers says. For items like produce, “Know When It’s Best to Choose Organic,” above, can help. In addition, “when possible, choose organic for fruits and veggies that you and your family consume on a regular basis, especially if they’re higher-risk,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist. And note: A thick peel may offer more protection against pesticides, but some types can make their way into the flesh of the produce or be taken up by a plant as it grows, says Lili He, PhD, an associate professor in the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (In general, you’ll want to wash produce as CR recommends, for 15 to 20 seconds under running water. Peeling may help remove some pesticide residue, but it isn’t foolproof.) For fish and shellfish raised in the U.S., organic labels are meaningless because there are no USDA organic standards for seafood. When it comes to packaged goods like cookies and boxed cereals, manufacturers of organic products are prohibited from using synthetic additives, like artificial preservatives and colors, that you might want to avoid, Keating says.

Bag It Yourself
Consider picking up items like organic grains, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit in stores with bulk bins. “Buying bulk can help you save money because you buy just what you need,” Keating says, “and you’ll also reduce packaging waste."

Check That Freezer Section
Whether organic or conventional, frozen produce is less expensive but just as nutritious as fresh. “Frozen foods are picked fresh, at the peak of their quality, and frozen immediately,” says Camire at the University of Maine. To freeze fresh organic produce yourself, wash it, let it dry, then pack it in a freezer-safe container.

Try Store-Brand Organics
Aldi, Costco, Kroger, Target, and Walmart are just a few of the chains with their own organic lines, which are often cheaper than brand-name products. A recent online search at Target.com found its Good & Gather organic 2 percent milk for $3.99 for a half-gallon; Horizon Organic, a national brand, was $5.49. CR has found that store and national brands can be comparable in taste and nutrition. “Check the nutrition facts label to see any differences in the amount of sodium, added sugars, and other ingredients,” Keating says.

Buy Online
Some online stores offer deals on organic foods. Thrive Market ($60 for an annual membership or $12 monthly) has an extensive selection of organic pantry staples that the company says may save you up to 30 percent off grocery store prices. Online subscription services like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods sell conventional and organic foods that might otherwise be thrown away because of, say, outdated packaging or approaching expiration dates. (Read more about these two services.)

Take a Look at Local
Some smaller growers who sell at farmers markets and farm stands, and via community supported agriculture (CSAs, where you pay an up-front fee to get a portion of a farmer’s harvest each week), may opt not to apply for or maintain organic certification because of the cost and paperwork.

If you find vendors like these, you can ask if they follow organic practices. Prices at farmers markets, CSAs, farm stands, and markets (find them at usdalocalfoodportal.com) are often similar to or cheaper than at grocery stores, depending on where you live and the season. And some accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Or join a member-run food co-op that focuses on local food. (Find one at grocery.coop/all-coops.)

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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