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When Is It Worth Buying Organic?

By LearnVest |
When deciding how to spend money, fewer things are as worthwhile an investment as your health.

This story is from our partner LearnVest and was originally published 2/15/2011.

When deciding how to spend money, fewer things are as worthwhile an investment as your health. Your body and spirit will reap the rewards from money spent on fresh ingredients and great produce long after the glint on the latest (albeit fabulous) chunky necklace starts to tarnish.

Despite skeptical arguments about what organic or all-natural really means and recent gaffes like the lax food safety guidelines in China, we like organic and locally grown foods because they generally contain fewer pesticides and hormones, and are grown in ways that are better for the environment. That said, organic food is nearly always more expensive.

If your grocery budget doesn’t allow you to buy all organic all the time, we’ve created a chart to help you figure out which items are more important and which are okay to let slide. We’ve based our info on USDA standards, the pesticides found in each food, and common wisdom within the green community:

When is it worth buying organic

Some Basic Rules Of Thumb.

  • Think Skin: When in doubt, organic is the safer bet for produce with edible skins (like apples and grapes). Most exceptions in the chart above are for produce that has fewer natural pests and therefore tends to be farmed with fewer pesticides.
  • Meat: If you have to prioritize your organic budget anywhere, animal and animal products are the best investment, because of the higher risk of contamination in cooking. Antibiotic-free is the most important designation to look for in meats, though ideally you want it all–free range and pasture fed. A huge percentage of the contaminants are found in the fat, so if you must go non-organic, keep it lean (i.e. chicken breasts rather than thighs).
  • Go Local: Buying from local farmers is a great way to get healthy, fresh produce at reasonable prices, and reduce the carbon footprint of your food. It’s less important to look for organic designations here if you can find out your local farm’s growing practices.

Know The Jargon.

Note that “organic” means something very specific in terms of regulation by the USDA, whereas some other phrases like “wild” fish may face significantly less regulation. There are four levels of organic certification, as defined by the USDA:

  • 100% Organic: All content is certified organic.
  • Organic: At least 95% of content, excluding water and salt, is organic.
  • Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of content is organic.
  • Ingredient Panel Only: Less than 70% organic.

The Bottom Line.

Remember that “organic” doesn’t equal healthy—non-organic chicken breast and broccoli are a healthier choice than organic potato chips and organic mac and cheese (though it does give us the illusion of health when we indulge). If you’re in the market for healthy snacks, check out our expert’s suggestions and LearnVest readers’ favorites.

And, in our humble opinion, organic wine goes with anything–organic or not!

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  • Edith L. 4 years ago
    Wow! I have been wondering about this topic for a long time. I am going to print this out and take it with me to the store so I can remember when buying organic matters more,