When is paying extra for organic worth it?
September 21, 2005 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Help me decide when paying a premium for organic / GMO-free / etc. is worth it.

My girlfriend and I do about 1/4 of our grocery shopping at Whole Foods, meaning that we alternate trips between there and other grocery stores, rather than going to both each time for different items.

At Whole Foods our total is generally about twice the normal grocery total, even though we're walking away with less items. If we were to shop only there, we'd be broke! We're both health and environmentally concerned, and would like a simple way of figuring out what items bring a large benefit for the extra price, and which don't matter as much.

General rules of thumb are good ("buy organic produce, but meat doesn't matter") or even lists of specific items ("Yogurt and bananas purchased anywhere are about the same, but buy apples at organic grocers").

Bonus: Anyone know the most convenient way to find locally-grown/raised items in the Orlando area?
posted by tkolstee to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Regarding organic meat and the risk of "Mad Cow disease":

"No known risk: Beef products from grass-fed and organic cattle. (These cattle should not have been exposed to any animal products in their feed.)" Cite via the oxtail thread.
posted by stet at 6:27 PM on September 21, 2005

When I first started reading your question, I thought my boyfriend had posted it. We do pretty much the exact same thing that you do with the different stores.

My rule is actually "buy organic meat, but produce doesn't matter" -- I am a recovering vegetarian and will only eat fully organic meat. I'm less worried about produce, though I buy organic when financially possible, of course. But as far as I know, non-organic produce doesn't have, you know, hormones and steroids, and stuff. Which the meat does.
We definitely eat meat less than we would if we weren't paying so much for it, but I think that is OK too. We eat meat 2-3 times a week, which is about as often as I could handle, I think.

If you're worried about organic produce and have the space, you could figure out what basics you use the most, and grow them yourselves (organically). I grow basil and mint, and would grow garlic and shallots and onions if I had started early enough. Next year. Also I'm hoping to plant some lettuce-related things for the fall. Tomatoes would be nice too and can be grown in containers. That's not a very complicated garden, if you have room for it, and it can save you a lot of money.

As for buying local food, have you checked your farmer's markets?
posted by librarina at 6:30 PM on September 21, 2005

You don't have to pay Whole Foods a premium for organic. Ask or search around your area for Farm-to-City share programs, where locally grown produce is brought in on a per-share basis. It's organic, bountiful and cheap over the course of the share season.
posted by Rothko at 6:33 PM on September 21, 2005

Same deal here, whole foods once, then grocery chain for the next 2 or 3 trips.

Definitely right on with red meat. That's worth getting organic every time.

For fruits and vegetables, a good point of reference is whether or not you eat the skin. If you eat the skin, get organic. If you remove the skin and throw it away, then don't bother with organic.
posted by Pliskie at 6:43 PM on September 21, 2005

We're both health and environmentally concerned, and would like a simple way of figuring out what items bring a large benefit for the extra price, and which don't matter as much.

I'm not trying to be snarky here, believe me, but you should remember that "organic" doesn't necessarily automatically equate with being "environmentally friendly".

- Organic crops may take up more land surface than non-organic crops for the same food output, meaning greater habitat loss.
- Organic crops, being "rarer", are likely to have been transported from further away - more fuel usage.

Therefore, there are other options which might be both cheaper, and have even less environmental impact. One of them you have identified already - buying local produce, in which case markets or even local sellers are the way to go. More important than that, from an environmental point of view, is understanding that if you are buying natural, local, organic produce, in reality there are certain foods you won't be able to get without them being transported from far, far away. If you live in a hot, humid, tropical climate, apples and berries will not be local. If you live in a cool temperate climate, the same goes for bananas. You can make a big positive environmental impact simply by changing your lifestyle and recognising that there are certian non-local foods that are off limits, and if you make this change, your shopping bill should go down too.

The other option is growing your own - again, we don't know how much space you have, but if you're serious about minimising environmental impact, it's imperative that you understand your ecological footprint. It is possible, on a standard suburban house block, to grow enough food to feed a family of four, excluding meat. The food will be seasonal. You will have no lawn. You will have no swimming pool. The appearance of your front yard will probably not be pleasing to your neighbours. But you will very quickly learn how to really make space work, and how to manage your ecological footprint, along with saving incredible amounts of money.
posted by Jimbob at 6:44 PM on September 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

Organic meat avoids steroids, antibiotics and the feeding animals animals loop thought to aid the spread of "mad cow" and reduce the amount of Omega-3 fatty acid (a good fat) in food. (Soy-based milk substitutes also avoid steriods and antibiotics.)

Organic fruit and vegetables avoids pesticides and other petroleum-based products such as fertilisers. Though, if you're into it for the "reducing use of oil" kick, produce grown locally is actually greener than organic produce that has to be shipped in.

You may also find that produce from organic grower's markets is simple "better". Once such local mart is the only place we can get unbruised avocados.
posted by krisjohn at 6:46 PM on September 21, 2005

I'm not sure about Florida, but in California I can get organic produce on the cheap if I go to a farmer's market. Here is a link to some farmer's markets in Florida. Maybe you can try one out and see if you have the same experience.
posted by kamikazegopher at 7:03 PM on September 21, 2005

Finding local foods: Check your location against Local Harvest Coop database. There was another posted to Metafilter a while ago, but I'm having a hard time looking it up. You can use Local Harvest or this USDA database to find farmers' markets.
posted by whatzit at 7:06 PM on September 21, 2005

From this link you can download a pocket guide of produce that should be bought in organic form, according to the Environmental Working Group. The list includes apples, peaches and potatoes. The list of things deemed "least contaminated" includes asparagus and onions.

So go forth and buy conventional asparagus.

Hmm. . . I am looking at the list and if you ask me, the tastier stuff tends to fall in the "buy organic" category. I guess if we think it's tasty, bugs do too?

This is hardly the only such list on the web. And some contradict one another. Bananas showed up on one list, but the above-linked list has them as "safe" to buy conventional.
posted by veggieboy at 7:06 PM on September 21, 2005

I've been googling for a great article I once read, and I'm having no luck. It broke down what you should buy organic based on what your concerns were -- whether you were worried about environmental damage, worried about pollution/antibiotics/steroids, or worried about pesticide residue.

As Jimbob points out, determining what's most important to you will change the answer to your question.

I did find Foodnews.org, which has a report card listing which conventional produce is high in pesticides (and should therefore be bought organically) and which is OK.
posted by occhiblu at 7:06 PM on September 21, 2005

If you have a local food coop you may investigate that.
posted by terrapin at 7:22 PM on September 21, 2005

The process to get organic certification is often quite drawn-out and expensive, which makes it prohibitive for small, local producers. There are also distribution issues to take into account when buying organic produce that may well have been transported hundreds or thousands of miles to the store.

My big rules of thumb? Organic or hormone-free dairy; genuinely free-range eggs. My wife eats meat, I don't; but I'll do the cooking if she buys meat that isn't factory-farmed, which has helped convert her to the idea that cheap lumps of animal protein are a false economy. (She loves chicken, but she also works near a huge chicken processing plant... it didn't take too much convincing.)

Nigel Slater's books are a great primer on eating seasonally and well, so that you don't end up paying a huge premium. Farmers' markets and box services are often a better deal than Whole Wallet.
posted by holgate at 7:23 PM on September 21, 2005

Do you buy organic primarily for the health benefit or for political/environmental reasons? I think that you could parse out the health benefits of conventional vs. organic with some sleuthing. For me I started with the health aspect and gradually became aware of the sustainable environmental reasons to vote organic with my consumer dollars. As you will/are finding out the equation is not an obvious one when it comes to which way to spend your dollars to minimize damage to the environment. For instance is it better to eat organic foods that have been trucked many thousands of miles or to eat food from a local farmer who is making a sincere effort to farm in a sustainable manner but is not certified organic? For me the answer is if the local product is available and I trust the source I choose local. If I am faced with anonymous bins of food one tabled organic and the other conventional I go for the organic. Organic standards are not perfect but they are a starting point. It is important to be active in supporting organic standards as they seem to be constantly under attack.
The big producers see that it is the fastest growing segment of the grocery business and really want to get their hands on it.

Here is a link for a Farmers Market in Orlando, and another for Florida in general. Perhaps if you ask around at the market you could locate a CSA too.

Whole Foods sells for a premium....Your best bet is to join a food coop.
posted by flummox at 7:37 PM on September 21, 2005

Actually, here in Minneapolis, Whole Foods seems to be more expensive than coops for some things, less for others.

A few years ago I read an article by Susun Weed pointing out that if (like me) you don't want to spend all the money to get everything organic possible, then one way to look at it is - (in the non meat category) that fats and oils, butter, grains and beans, accumulate a lot more pesticides than fruits and vegies. So, I've been buying more non-organic fruits and vegies than before, and always getting the fats, oils, etc. that are organic, if available. On the other hand, I view buying organic as supporting organic farming, problem is that I just can't support everything financially.
posted by judybxxx at 8:28 PM on September 21, 2005

In my opinion, it's rarely worth it. This article from the East Bay Express includes many of the reasons why. In short, "organic" has been redefined by the government in such a way that its presence on a food label says almost nothing about the product.

Plus, when you add in mislabeling—something you will probably never uncover on your own, since you have to take the producer's word for it—there's even more uncertainty about whether you're even getting the kind of quality food you're paying for when you buy something marked "organic." (To help bust up a myth: "It just tastes better" is not anything like proof that something is organic.)

You'd do almost as well, if you can, just to avoid processed foods, eat less sugar, grow your own, buy locally grown product, buy directly from farmers, eat less meat, eat leaner meat, and to eat less in general. Also, the whole eating experience can be improved by remembering that there is often a wide disparity between what disgusts or worries us and what really does hurt us.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:49 PM on September 21, 2005

Personally, I buy everything that I can at the local farmer's markets, or at a nearby organic farm.

I shop at Whole Foods regularly, but never stock up on stuff there... it's good, but it's more expensive than my other organic options, so I make one meal purchases there.

If you have a freezer, you can save on organic meats by finding a butcher who will sell you large quantities at a decent price.
posted by I Love Tacos at 10:34 PM on September 21, 2005

I've worked in an organic grocery store and I can tell you firsthand that the only difference between "organic" and "conventional" produce is that the organic produce is dirtier. Seriously. Oh, and it spoils faster. Often (and especially in the case of fruits such as peaches and cherries), it is tastier, but up to you if you want pay more for it.

Meat, do pay extra. Free-range meat is not only better for you, it's much better for the cow. (Though I think organic produce is probably better for the apples, I care more about cows than apples.) Most meat in this country is raised in appaling conditions and the more you buy organic free-range meat, well, that's the more you're saying "No, I don't want your weirdo growth hormones" to the meat raising industry. Seriously, something needs to be done about the meat in the US, it's awful.

Also : especially for women, pay extra for organic milk. Milk has usually been treated with growth hormones that may or may not have anything to do with breast cancer. It's just a generally sketchy situation and I've heard no good justification for hormone treatment and a lot of paranoid rantings against it. Is it really going to give you a second head? Probably not. Is it really something you should be ingesting? Probably not.

Cage free eggs - well, I'm not sure if the eggs are any better, but the chickens are certainly a lot happier.

Buy local, as opposed to "organic" whenever you can. Small farms need your support!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:17 AM on September 22, 2005

Response by poster: A little more detail, based on some questions and opinions above:

* I don't buy much red meat, mostly poultry and fish. I've bought conventional meats from the "regular" grocery store in the past

* I am concerned about both the environment and my own health. I had considered the issue about organic crops using more land for the same amount of yield (as Jimbob brought up). I've even heard opinions that if everyone went organic, the world wouldn't have enough land to produce food for everyone. Don't know how accurate that is, or how the move from meat to vegetarian lifestyle would compensate for that.

* I always buy free-range eggs, organic where possible, because I've found (over several Easters) that consuming a large amount of conventional eggs tends to negatively affect my mood quite strongly.

* I try to buy organic milk or substitute soy/rice milk where possible. I know of at least one couple whose daughter started puberty at the age of seven, and stopped when they switched to hormone-free milk.

I'm really surprised about the large difference in opinions on produce that were expressed here. The main things we've been buying at WF are produce (because of pesticide concerns) and snack foods (because more commercialized products contain a lot of junk).

Thanks all for your answers. I'll definitely check out the links and your advice, and hopefully be able to maximize the health benefits I get from paying a (money and environmental footprint) premium for certain food.
posted by tkolstee at 8:41 AM on September 22, 2005

well, I'm not sure if the eggs are any better

Absolutely. Eggs are, IMO, one of the more clear-cut examples of organic food being better. Just look at the yolks- they're invariably larger and a deeper color than "industrial" eggs. They don't taste mealy, either.

I buy almost everything I can organic, but I'm spoiled by living around the corner from an amazing co-op. Honestly, I have yet to find a piece of fruit whose organic variety wasn't CLEARLY better than the non-organic. Ditto tomatoes. Things like bell peppers, onions, cauliflower? Not so much.

holgate makes an excellent point about eating "seasonally". Even if you don't buy organic, there's a tremendous benefit in buying what's fresh in your region.
posted by mkultra at 9:18 AM on September 22, 2005

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