Going organic: When is it OK to splurge?

Photo courtesy of lonutzmovie, Wiki

Photo courtesy of lonutzmovie, Wiki

As a college student grocery shopping for myself for the first time, there is one thing I have learned from the past two months — organic means more expensive. Though it’s clear to see that organic foods have significant benefits — people generally agree that pesticides are bad— college students looking to keep grocery bills on low need to look past common misconceptions of organic foods.

Consumer Reports found that organic food costs 49 percent more than standard produce on average. Once you slap “certified organic” on the label, a six-count carton eggs jumps from $3 to $3.40 at Vons.  And though we probably wouldn’t notice if we dropped forty cents on the street, the cost of buying organic products can add up quickly. Everything these days comes in “organic,” from cooking staples like eggs and milk to cold coffee and macaroons.

Given its popularity in grocery stores, it is important to understand what “organic” means. Organic labeling signifies that the food was farmed without pesticides and use more environmentally-friendly farming practices like “using crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds,” according to Mayo Clinic.

Choosing organic provides the peace of mind that the food in your fridge is not covered in toxic chemicals and antibiotics. Produce with the USDA organic seal guarantees that the product is at least 95 percent organic and the label “Made with Organic Ingredients” guarantees that the product is at least 75 percent organic. Onward with the factors to consider.

Both organic and non-organic foods use pesticides — the difference between the two foods, as reflected in the price, is the type of pesticide used. Non-organic foods rely heavily on synthetic chemicals. But, in order to be approved for consumption, the level of chemicals in produce has to below a government-set measure, ADI or the Acceptable Daily Intake.

Furthermore, a review in the Journal of Food Science on organic foods found that “from a practical standpoint, the marginal benefits of reducing human exposure to pesticides in the diet through increased consumption of organic produce appear to be insignificant.”  Synthetic pesticides, much like genetically-modified foods, have not been comprehensively proven to be harmful. Though that does not mean that they are guaranteed safe, till the jury comes in on that verdict, it might be reassuring that some of pesticides in both organic and non-organic foods can be washed off. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found that the levels of 12 specific pesticides decreased significantly after one wash with tap water.

But, if you feel the idea of synthetic chemicals in your food makes you uncomfortable, here are a few tips to pragmatically incorporate “organic” into your budget:

  1. Choose organic dairy products

Unlike with fruits and vegetables, it is much harder to “wash away” the antibiotics and synthetic chemicals from dairy products like milk and cheese. It is common knowledge that dairy cattle can be treated with growth hormones to bulk them up. Trace amounts of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) have been found in milk, and because the effects of rBGH on blood pressure and overall health are not completely understood, it would be better to spring for organic hormone-free dairy products.

  1. Buy cold cuts for meat

For the same reason as dairy, to err on the safe side, buy organic cold cuts. College students who opt for microwavable or pre-cooked meats should check the label to ensure that the source of the meat is organic and antibiotic free!

  1. The dirty dozen

While it is possible to rinse some of the pesticides off from produce, some fruits and vegetables have more pesticides than others. The Environmental Working Group maintains a list of produce that have been found to be treated with the most pesticides. Apples, peaches, and nectarines are on the top of the list, so it is definitely worth it to splurge on organic options for these fruits. On the other hand, avocados, pineapples, kiwis and papayas were found to have the lowest amount of pesticide residues — you can save your money and buy choose non-organic varieties!

The true benefits of organic food is still a contentious topic in the scientific community. The choice of whether or not to go organic lies in weighing the pros against the cons in terms of cost and safety.