Organic vs. conventional, when you’re on a budget

NectarineMs. Corn Maven passed me a copy of the February Consumer Reports, which devoted a sizable multi-part feature to organic food. At first I was disturbed at how much attention the magazine was spending on how expensive it is, without discussing *why* it is pricier than conventional food (labor, lack of subsidies, smaller scale), but then I realized they’re coming at the choice from the point of view of the dispassionate, me-first consumer. As they state, “While some shoppers buy organic to support its producers’ environmentally friendly practices, most are trying to cut their exposure to chemicals in the foods they eat.” (Unfortunately you have to be a member to read the story online, but I accessed it through Lexis-Nexis.)

So if your only interest in organic is for its health value, then Consumer Reports has a quick list of which products you should dig deep into your pockets for:

Apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.

WHY. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own lab testing reveals that even after washing, some fruits and vegetables consistently carry much higher levels of pesticide residue than others. Based on an analysis of more than 100,000 U.S. government pesticide test results, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., have developed the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, above, that they say you should always buy organic if possible because their conventionally grown counterparts tend to be laden with pesticides. Among fruits, nectarines had the highest percentage testing positive for pesticide residue. Peaches and red raspberries had the most pesticides (nine) on a single sample. Among vegetables, celery and spinach most often carried pesticides, with spinach having the highest number (10) on a single sample. (For more information on pesticide levels for other types of produce, go to

Other items it considers worth the markup are: meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy and baby food. And if “price is no object” (or if you’re an Ethicurean who’s decided you’d rather spend money on food than, say, Mission Impossible III and gossip magazines), you can also spring for:

Asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas.

WHY. Multiple pesticide residues are, in general, rarely found on conventionally grown versions of these fruits and vegetables, according to research by the EWG. So if you’re buying organic only for health reasons, you may not want to pay 22 percent extra for organic bananas, let alone more than 150 percent for organic asparagus — the premiums we found in our price survey of several New York City area supermarkets.

    Of course, if in addition to your health, you also care about pesticide runoff in our freshwater supply and conventional foods’ guzzling of petroleum-based fertilizer, then you might want to consider how to rejigger your budget to spend more on food.

    Thankfully, Consumer Reports points out that organic junk food (like potato chips and cereals) are a waste of money for a variety of reasons, not least because processing tends to wash away important nutrients.

    Some of the other sidebars contain facts that are sure to lift the leg hair of the typical CR reader, such as:

    • Consumers can still easily consume small amounts of more than 30 pesticides daily when eating a healthful variety of foods.
    • A study released in 2005 in which umbilical-cord blood of 10 children was collected by the Red Cross and tested for pollutants showed that 21 pesticides crossed the placenta.
    • Synthetic growth hormones may be carcinogenic and exposure to them may be linked to the precocious onset of puberty in girls. The USDA bans the use of such hormones in all poultry (organic or not), but when it comes to hogs, beef, or dairy cattle, only organic producers are legally bound not to use them.
    • Widespread use of antibiotics in animals increases the odds that a drug that might have saved your life if you were to be hit by, say, a life-threatening case of food poisoning will now do you no good.
    • Nonorganic foods can expose you to a range of other contaminants with potential health risks. Conventionally raised chicken, for example, eat feed that can contain neurotoxins, such as arsenic or heavy metals. And the animals’ feet may be dipped in motor oil as a treatment for an ailment known as scaly leg mite.

    Ew! So, all in all, an excellent report — well worth getting your hands on if you know some reality-based folk who still don’t think they ought to cough up more bucks for the organic version.

    One Responseto “Organic vs. conventional, when you’re on a budget”

    1. ella vance says:

      can you tell me the cost comparison of organic foods vs conventional foods??????