Is organic food healthier or just more expensive?

At the market, organic carrots are twice the price of regular carrots, organic oats are nearly four times the price of the cheapest store-brand version and other organic products don’t come cheap. Is organic food really a healthier option or is it just expensive?

Organic food is touted as being healthier for humans, animals, and the environment. Nearly every grocery store stocks organic products. Food companies proudly wear the term “organic” like a badge. But, if you have switched to organic eating, you may be wondering if the extra money you are spending is worth it. Read on for answers to your questions and tips to buy organic products if you are on a budget.

Why is it more expensive?
According to information from the Soil Association (an organization in the UK that grants organic status to food and farms), “High animal welfare, crop rotations, extra environmental measures, the use of skilled husbandry rather than agrochemicals can all result in organic food costing more to produce in the short run.” For example, not using pesticides often means farmers have to weed by hand.

In addition, raw materials, such as fertilizer, cost more to create or purchase. Artificial fertilizers that are used on non-organic produce are less expensive than the natural alternatives used on organic plants. Natural alternatives like compost or rotted animal manure take time to make, are heavy and bulky, and result in high costs to ship to organic farms around the country.

Another factor contributing to expense is the yield of organic crops. The yields of organics are generally lower. Further, farmers tend to use crop rotation (a technique of planting different types crops on the same plot of land, rather than using a plot exclusively for one fruit or vegetable), which means land is used less intensively. Another reason that food may be more expensive is that in some areas, demand is outstripping supply. Food costs should begin to fall as producers catch up.

Finally, the issue is that with organic food you are generally paying the ‘true’ cost of the food, as opposed to the cost after subsidies from the government or major corporations often added to non-organics.

Is organic food healthier?
Early results from a four-year Quality Low-Input Food study showed that organic fruit and vegetables were higher in antioxidants and minerals. Results of the study indicate that up to 40% more antioxidants could be found in organic fruit and vegetables than in non-organic varieties.

Fruits and vegetables are not the only organics with denser nutrient content. Even organic milk can contain 60% more antioxidants and healthy fatty acids as compared to non-organic varieties. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science comparing organic and conventional dairy farms showed that milk from organic farms had higher levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 (the fatty acid that may help heart health) than conventionally-produced milk. Other studies suggest that this may be because organic cows eat more fresh grass and clover.

A bonus for mothers and their children is that the consumption of organic milk has been found to improve skin conditions. Infants who eat organic dairy products, and whose mothers ate organic dairy products, seem to have a lower risk of developing eczema. Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director said, “…the scientists’ findings of over a third fewer cases of eczema among children fits in with the experience of many people who eat organic food.”

In addition, a 2007 study published in the Veterinary Record suggests that organic egg-laying chickens have lower levels of salmonella infection than conventional egg-laying chickens.

What about the impact on the environment?
In addition to health benefits, there is also an environmental benefit to using organic foods. Organic farming has less of an impact of the environment because it does not use artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and it also uses less energy per ton of food produced. Eating locally grown organics also helps the environment by cutting down on cross-country shipping.

Bottom line, organic can be a healthier choice for you and the environment and it is also in general more expensive. However, the following tips can help you economically include organic foods in your diet.

Tips for buying organic on a budget
Even though more expensive, there are steps you can take to include organics in your diet.

1. Check out your local Farmer’s Market or community farm. Food that is produced locally and sold without all the fancy packaging will often be lower in cost.

2. Join a co-op program. Some programs even deliver to your door, saving you the fuel or travel cost

3. Learn to do more with less. Buy smaller pieces of organic meats and round out meals with vegetables, grains, pasta or rice

4. Try a variety of organic foods. You may find something that is cheaper and better tasting than your usual favorites.

5. Make the most of what you buy. Michele Thompson, MS a health-based personal chef in Bozeman, Montana recommends, “Roast an organic chicken then add the dark meat to a risotto or pasta, make a chicken salad with the breast, and use the bones to make a flavorful chicken stock.

6. Buy food in season. When there is an abundance of a particular type of produce, it is likely to be cheaper.

7. Buy extra and freeze it. Look for sales and freeze the extra.

8. Grow your own organic vegetables. Seed a few pots with your favorite herbs and vegetables or, if you have the room in your backyard, plant a garden.

9. Make small changes. Incorporate organics into your diet a few at a time. This will give you a chance to realize the health benefits as well as lessen the hit on your wallet.


For more information and links to the organic studies:

Co-ops and food buying clubs

Find a co-op near you

Comparing the fatty acid composition of organic and conventional milk

Comparison of grass and legume silages for milk production

Survey of the prevalence of Salmonella species on commercial laying farms in the United Kingdom

Points and Prizes Keyword: ANTIOXIDANTS worth 50 points good through 02/24/08.


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