Updated on 10.20.07

Organic Foods and Frugality

Trent Hamm

tomatoA few of my friends are big believers in buying organic produce. They basically won’t buy anything at all that’s not certified USDA Organic, and they claim loudly and repeatedly that this is really the only way to go if you care about your health.

To me, it’s more a matter of personal preference than anything else. While there are some benefits to organic food, there are some serious limitations to it as well.

First of all, with regards to the question of whether organic foods are better for you, it’s pretty hard to trust most sources of information. Almost every source of information has a clear bias on the topic, from pro-organic folks listing lots of positive attributes to others claiming there are no health benefits at all. Both sides have significant scientific literature that “proves” their perspective.

What’s the actual truth? As usual, it’s probably somewhere in the middle – organic foods probably do have a small number of benefits over non-organic crops, but the claims that some make about the benefits of the foods are likely overblown. Almost always, when you have two sides shouting loudly with very different perspectives, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

What about the lack of chemicals in organics? That’s largely overrated, too. Take a look at the USDA regulations on what is considered “organic,” particularly starting on page 427, where it lists materials allowed for use in organic crop production. I’ve selected a few allowed items:

calcium hypochlorite
chlorine dioxide
soap-based algicide
calcium polysulfide
copper sulfate
lignin sulfonate

I just pulled out a few, actually, from the first few pages of the list, largely to prove the point that claims that organic foods are free of chemicals is nonsensical. Sure, most of the items on this list are perfectly benign, but are you going to study each of these chemicals to make sure your food is safe? If you aren’t, you’re in the same boat of trusting the USDA and the FDA as you would be when you buy non-organics.

In a nutshell, organic foods are likely somewhat better for you than non-organics, and are likely better for the environment as well. Is it enough of a difference to account for the difference in price? Maybe, maybe not – it depends on your values – but to believe that USDA-certified organics are strictly and clearly superior to non-organics is a substantial overstatement, especially when you consider the dollar value of the food.

Here’s the real truth: if you are really committed to foods that are produced with the environment in mind, grow them yourself or participate in a co-op that grows them to a strict standard. The vegetables in my garden are fertilized by compost I make myself, and the only things I spray on them are vinegar-based bug and critter repellents that I make myself in the kitchen. That’s food I’m glad to feed my family. When you buy food, at some point you have to trust others, regardless of whether you buy USDA-certified organic food or not. As for me, I’m perfectly happy buying the non-organics and mixing them with the food I grow myself.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Bill says:

    Isn’t “slow food” and “eat locally” better for the environment> (e.g., skip eating Chilean grapes, even if they’re organic)

  2. Amanda says:

    The thing that Trent doesn’t cover is the most important one, from my point of view: organic foods taste better.

    Here’s a taste test: buy one beefsteak tomato (non-organic) from your local grocery. That tomato was picked green and then exposed to various gasses in a room to turn it red. That’s why it’s tasteless. Then buy a similar organic tomato from your local farmer’s market. The conventional tomato is guaranteed to be a pale, tasteless shadow of the locally-grown organic one.

    Repeat with almost any other vegetable, fruit, meat product, or anything else for that matter. The taste of organic can’t be beaten.

  3. Ace says:

    Some conventional foods are particularly high in pesticide residues and antibiotics. Not everybody is an organic absolutist as implied. In some cases, buying organic is well worth the premium. In others, it’s practically foolish.

    We try to buy organic grapes, apples, strawberries, spinach, peppers, and dairy products. We rarely if ever buy organic bananas, broccoli, or personal care products.

    I highly recommend not succumbing to the logic that the organic label is too compromised or complicated to be trusted, so don’t bother. It’s worth investigating and factoring into your overall value system, especially if you or someone you feed has a lot of life left to live.

  4. Leslie says:

    I try to buy locally but not necessarily organic (although a lot of it is). I don’t think that the taste difference Amanda mentions has to do with the food being organic so much as it has to do with it being local (fresher, not gassed etc.).

    I find myself constantly analyzing the cost of various foods and if the extra cost is worth it to me. I buy locally raised, grass fed beef because that cost is worth it to me (locally produced, locally processed, no feed lot involved, lower chance of contamination etc.). Buying organic grapes and bananas is not worth it to me. I spend more to buy organic cereal bars (the only kind of breakfast my son will eat most days) because they don’t have high fructose corn syrup in them. I buy just regular Heinz kethup though. Even though it has high fructose corn syrup in it (which I try to avoid), I eat so little of it that it doesn’t matter much to me.

    As with most things, you have to weigh what factors are most important to you and go forward. For me, local always trumps organic and in some cases cost trumps organic and in others vice versa.

  5. Elaine says:

    I live in Canada and don’t trust the USDA, really. If something labelled organic and it’s from the US, I’ll consider it about the same as conventional produce, for two reasons.

    1. USDA “organic” regulations are ridiculously lax due to lobbying from the huge agro businesses; and
    2. If it’s unpackaged, it is all sprayed at the border anyway.

    I buy nearly all my produce (which makes up a major portion of my diet) at the farmer’s market as well… if I’m unsure what’s in/on it, I can simply ask the guy who grew it.

    And I do think the taste difference has to do with being local as well. I never knew what grapes tasted like till I got them from the farmer’s market this summer… the ones in the grocery store are bred for size and crunchiness, not taste. The ones I get taste like wine, as they should.

  6. Diane says:

    I gotta go with Amanda on this one. From my experience, organic foods do taste better. If you have ever tasted Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Tomatoes you know what I mean. There will be $1 coupons for them in tomorrows paper and you can bet I’ll be buying coupons for extras off ebay.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I think the flavor difference described above is attributed to locally-grown (in the case of Amanda’s described tomato) and to the preparation process (in the case of Diane’s description). I agree strongly that the tomatoes I produce in my backyard taste decidedly different than tomatoes I would buy at my local grocery store.

  8. m says:

    Thanks for bringing up this issue. I plan to write a post inspired by and partly as a response to this one, including the comments I write here, because this issue is a very important to me and I am really glad that you raised it here.

    I agree that the organic foods industry and regulations in the US are not perfect by any means, but do I prefer fewer chemicals in my body to more chemicals? You bet, is it worth occasionally paying slightly more? You bet.

    Yes, there are problems with the USDA label, there is noncompliance, there are problems with oversight of the organic foods industry, but those types of problems occur with nonorganic foods as well. But, again, in my view, better to limit your chemical intake as much as possible than to not make any effort to do so at all.

    Growing food at home is great, but for those who can’t or for whatever foods are not grown at home organically, I believe organically labeled foods still provide a better alternative than nonorganic.

    First because it is a fact that ther eis less chemical exposure, even if some chemicals, etc. are allowed.

    Second, just because the government definition of organic plays a bit fast and loose with the true definition of the term does not mean that none of our organic food is not organic in the way we normally understand the term. In many cases, organically grown produce is actually what the majority believe the term organic to mean.

    Third, using certified 100 percent organic products keeps genetic engineering out of your food because the use of biotechnology is not allowed in organic crops or livestock” (minus a potential 5% pollen drift concession), and “GMOs are specifically excluded from certified-organic products.”

    (*Quotes from:http://www.coopfoodstore.coop/news/Archives/arch_5_04/nutrit_tude.html
    and http://www.grinningplanet.com/2004/07-20/food-labels-article.htm)

    Those who wish to avoid genetically altered foods have no way of knowing what’s GMO if they buy regular products. GMO foods are not required to be labeled as such so all our food is fair game. Ingredients labeled at 100% organic cannot be GMO.

    Fourth, those who want to avoid hormones in their dairy products again would be better off with organic dairy products or ones specifically labeled as not containing homrones.

    It’s hard for anything to be *truly* organic in today’s world. We are all full of all sorts of toxic materials, as is our environment and the products we use. But limiting our exposure is important, and many illnesses (including one I have) have been linked to overexposure to chemicals that can be at least partly avoided by making the effort.

    For me, having researched to some degree issues involving chemicals we are exposed to these days, doing all I reasonably can to limit my exposure (including buying “green’ cleaning products and the like) is very very important. And as someone who has a chronic illness that is linked to environmental toxicity, this issue is even more important to me.

    Everyone has to decide for himself and herself, but I think, doing so requires having a well balanced understanding of all sides of the issue and a thorough list of facts and statistics and at least a decent amount of research done on the effects of chemicals and other substances in our food and other products.

    Growing your own is a great idea. For everything one doesn’t grow, trying to find products with the least chemicals is in my view still the best, if not always the ideal, choice. And shopping at the “right” places often leads to not spending much more on organics than one would on nonorganic products, at least in my experience.

  9. D says:

    Trent, would you describe the types of bug and pest control sprays you make? I’ve been looking for some good ideas for my (much expanded) garden next year.

  10. Jay says:

    I read a study where they tested a few hundred kids in Seattle and found that those who ate conventional food had higher levels of pesticide compounds in their bodies. I just saw on CNN last night an interesting idea that perhaps organics help keep one thinner because there are fewer toxins to tax one’s liver. At any rate, I agree that cultivating one’s own food and/or buying from a CSA are ideals, but we have been living in large cities over the past few years and have not had garden plots (and the CSAs were out of our budget range). We hit the farmer’s market whenever we can, and continue to do our best.

    Not to mention old Mama Earth — while I agree that the USDA/FDA sure can play fast and loose with organic standards, the same is true of conventionals. And when it comes down to it, the stuff that is being labeled organic should be free of the most toxic substances, a benefit to the commons (water and air) that we all share. Its hard to put a value on that in our budgeting, but I think its worth keeping an eye on the bigger picture!

  11. 60 in 3 says:

    Trent’s right on a number of things here. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean chemical free. Lots of people claim the organic label while only paying lip service to the organic idea. You’re better off growing your own food, buying at local farmers markets, frequenting local farms and other such non commercial sources of food than you are going to the supermarket and buying organic labeled foods. You’ll end up with better tasting food that’s usually pretty cheap.


  12. Bonnie says:

    I tend to buy organic. However, I don’t buy everything organic. We’re lucky to live in an area with a co op that has locally grown food which is primarily organic. I also feel fortunate to live in an area where there are many people who do put a priority on local and organic foods (always a debate). I have more choice in the matter than a lot of people and as a result, I expect that what I spend a smaller amount of “extra” to get organic versus conventionally grown foods than someone in a different area.

  13. Brigid says:

    Here’s the study that made an organic believer of me:


    The researchers looked tested children’s urine for the metabolic products of organophosphate pesticides. They found that kids in the families that followed a mostly organic diet had much lower levels than the kids who ate conventional produce.

    I buy mostly organic produce for my family. In the summer and fall that’s easy, thanks to my local food co-op (it’s like a CSA). I’m also finding that organic produce is getting cheaper in my local supermarkets. To offset the additional cost, I’m making a conscious effort to cook more from scratch.

  14. Phoenix says:

    not necessarily related to organics, but a question I have struggled with the past three months–If I choose to charge $1000 on a credit card ( 0% interest, with rewards) which I will pay off by December, is this a good idea? Some background–This is to complete a “bedroom makeover” which removes the dresser I have used since my previous husband’s friend gave it to me (15 years ago)and the bureau my current husband used in his childhood (again, some 15 years) AND clear our dinning room of extra storage items. We commonly use this credit card for groceries and utilities, and pay it off each month. Do you think the cost of carrying a relatively small balance outweighs the benefit of getting rid of emotionally charged furniture ( and the extra room in the house taken during the transition). I would be happy to provide a few more details on the situation if you feel it a good fit as a question for you blog that could help others in similar circumstances. And BTW–the Phoenix name related to the myth, NOT the city.

  15. sunny says:

    We buy fruits, vegetables, tofu and tempe from a local co-op. We also grow our own veggies and have several fruit trees (live in Florida so we can have two gardens a year). Organic milk is a must for me just for the taste. Organic or not we avoid high fructose corn syrup whenever possible.

    As far as taste tomatoes, strawberries and yes potatoes are so much better when organic. We buy organic russet potatoes and whenever guests taste them they can’t believe how good they are.

  16. Thomas says:

    Yes the USDA label has diluted the meaning of organic, before the USDA took over the labelling we had far more strict 3rd party labelling, which still exists if you look closely, this is a case where education is useful and you will not get any from the agri business owned USDA.
    We belong to a local organic co op and for $500 we get veggies for a family of four ,once a week,pulled out of the ground that morning ,grown by people we know,that taste FABULOUS ( from June till October, in Alaska).
    The food is better than store bought, cheaper, our money stays in the state,and we don’t pay for transportation costs.
    If you want food the way it was grown for millenia,before the chemical companies saw a new “market”, you must know your local farmer and know how he grows. Do not trust the USDA,their interests lie in the hands of big industry and profit,not in clean safe food and unpolluted waterways.

  17. Jillian says:

    I think you’ve got to do your research when it comes to buying organic, just like anything else. I buy organic milk because I have enough of my own hormones to deal with, eggs because they taste better, and tea and coffee because you’re literally drinking the run-off from the plants.
    But for all I know, all tea could be grown organically, and they just stick an organic label on some of it so they can charge more…

  18. m says:

    This post seems different than when I read it this morning. Is it or am I imagining things?

  19. Marcus Murphy says:

    Really it shouldn’t be about organic or in-organic. Before the recent fad of buying organic, I can tell you the quality of food labeled as organic was phenomenal! Since its popularity rose, restrictions have been cut back etc. For me I saw organic and I knew it was a safe bet back then for high quality food. Not so much anymore. Now I just shop where I know the food is still grown to a stricter regimen. It delivers every time. I agree above about the taste. My grandmother never really liked strawberries growing up. I insisted that she try an organic one grown on a local farm. One bite and she was hooked!

    Another issue I can pick with inorganic food is that the nutritional quality is lower, in many cases much lower. It all depends on the source that grew it. I would never buy organic in a grocery store, it really isn’t that much better than inorganic in my eyes.

  20. Paul says:

    You certainly seemed to be riding the fence until that last paragraph.
    Very good post.
    There are so many loop holes in the USDAs regulations that the really big agribusinesses can hire crafty lawyers to get around just about anything. For instance, a chicken is considered free-range if it is just given “access” to the outside and pasture, so what many agribiz farms do is raise the chicken, packed with thousands of others in a building completely closed off, for the first few weeks of its life, and then gives it “access” to the outdoors by opening a small hole in the wall, which the chicken, by this point, has no desire to go through. But, they were given “access” and because of that, they can be labeled Free-Range, according to the USDA (of course it’s not quite this simple, but you can see what I mean).
    The bottom line is, you are in charge of what goes in your mouth, and you are the one that suffers or benefits from any consequences that arise from your actions. Stop delegating your life.

  21. Lisa says:

    Since the USDA now controls ‘organic,’ and the USDA is under the influence of the Arthur Daniels Midland (ADM: supermarket to the world)and Cargills (ie: BIG business), many of you have fallen into the very ploy those companies intended. That is, you believe that ‘organic’ is not really good at all and that any data/study is arguable. Tobacco did it, big oil does it, and now your corporate farm is doing it too.

    Buy local when you can. Better taste, less energy used in transportation, better for your economy. Talk to a farmer.

  22. Lisa says:

    Trent, what do you think is wrong with those allowed CHEMICALS you list? Those aren’t large man-made concoctions like the herbicides your corn-growing neighbors use.

    From your point of view, DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE is bad.
    dihydrogen monoxide = H2O = water!

  23. Brock says:

    Essentially Trent’s just waving around words with scary-sounding suffixes. And no, the American Chemistry Council did not pay me to write this comment.

    My point is not that USDA organic standards are perfect and wonderful. A previous commenter points out that these are, after all, _USDA_ standards, with a great deal of industry baggage.

    My point is that organic can indeed be better — for a person and for the environment. Reducing chemical loads is important not even necessarily for our own health, but for the long-term sustainability of our agricultural and ecological systems.

    We can’t all grow our own food, Trent. We don’t all live in Iowa. Some of us — gasp! — don’t have yards (or even usable open space), and a lot of people don’t have access to food co-ops. If we want food without chemicals (or with as little chemical load as possible) we have to rely on organic farming — and that involves, yes, the dreaded trusting of other people.

    Sometimes, in society, we have to do that.

    And yes, local is demonstrably better for all kinds of reasons, taste and embodied energy (fewer food miles) being chief among them.

    Here’s a graph:

    O R G A N I C

    Try to maximize both.

  24. Sylvia says:

    I’ve struggled with the issue of organics for several months now. I’ve finally narrowed it down to a few things. My doctor wants me to avoid hormones so I buy organic milk. ( my mother died of breast cancer, so that is the reason to avoid hormones) I don’t buy much meat anyway but the next time I do it will be organic for the same reason. I buy eggs from mennonite or amish farmers. And my doctor also wants my to avoid the harmful fats in bakery goods and peanut butter. So I buy organic peanut butter. Even though my children are grown , trying to be buy all organic is way beyond our budget. We try not to spend more than 250.00 dollars a month on food and supplies. Let my tell you though, I have agonized over this issue.

  25. Susy says:

    I only buy “the dirty dozen” in organic if I can find them. I buy for personal health as well as for environmental reasons. I buy organic milk and local free-range organic eggs. I live in rural OH, so I have a hard time finding good organic produce in my small town groceries. I’m starting to grow my own because it’s cheaper and healthier, you can’t get any more local than your own back yard!

    Milk is our big organic purchase. I will never buy non-organic milk again! Tastes better, and it’s better for you! If you can find a local dairy to buy from even better!

  26. Mariette says:

    The other environmental impact that no one has mentioned is the petroleum intensive means of production with conventional agriculture (and some large scale organics) through the use of heavy machinery and even some of the fertilizers and pesticides themselves. If you are trying to reduce your carbon footprint buying from smaller, family farms is essential.

    There is a very interesting documentary out now about this that is touring the festivals called “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”. It’s about how Cuba’s agricultural system completely transformed after the collapse of the Soviet Union because they had very limited access to oil (and the information conveyed is interesting and useful no matter how you feel about peak oil or Cuba.)

    Now nearly all their food is grown by a network of small farms, in the city as well as the countryside and 80% of farming is organic. All because they don’t have oil to spare for growing food. Another result has been that farmers are well paid, some of the best paid jobs in the country, and are now respected members of the community.

  27. Elizabeth says:

    For me the last paragraph of Trent’s post is absolutely key — and I do grow MOST of my own produce because I have the luxury of a big sunny yard. My second choice is to buy from farmers I can talk to at the farmers market — whether they choose to pay for organic certification or not, a sign saying “no chemicals have ever touched these vegetables!” speaks pretty loudly. But when I am buying something I didn’t grow and can’t get from local farmers — wheat flour, for example — I will pay extra to buy organic not because I am worried about residues but because of the chemicals being put into our environment.

    Lisa, here’s just one of the things wrong with those chemicals: there’s an area in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey that no longer can sustain life because of all the fertilizer washing down the Mississippi River. I want no part in that.

    My husband and I literally keep track of the extra expense of organic vs. conventional under “donations” in our budget. Well, we don’t track item by item, but use the estimate that the additional cost is about 25% of our grocery bill. I consider this extra expense at least as worthy as other ways we choose to donate to environmental causes — I think if money were tighter I’d give up my annual contribution to the Sierra Club before I quit buying organic.


  28. Lisa says:

    Elizabeth, I concede that ammonium is man-made and is terrible for the environment (particularly as it contributes to hypoxic zones around the world). I missed that when I read the blog.

    I buy from the farm so we are on the same side. My point to Trent was that, with the exception of ammonium, the things on that list are pretty basic stuff that our great-grandparents used (soap, wood chips, metals as fungicides). They are not all perfectly ideal, but they are not organophosphates etc. I feel he was equating any chemical name to being bad, hence my question about dihydrogen monoxide.

  29. David says:

    I really think you only need to ask yourself one question: If someone put two vegetables in front of you, one that was grown with pesticides and one that was grown without – which would you choose?

    When it comes to eating, it is one thing I am not frugal about, as it is the fuel you are putting in your body.

  30. Lucy says:

    I would love to buy more organic for all of the reasons discussed above, but at the moment my food budget is seriously limited which in turn limits the amount of organic food I can buy. There are a couple of things I always buy regardless of the budget though;
    – organic milk
    – free range eggs
    – free range chicken (I personally can’t bear the thought of battery farmed chicken)

    I agree with alot of the previous posters who have said that one of the main reasons for buying organic is the taste as well as the possible health benefits, and as my food budget hopefully starts to increase so will the amount of organic food I buy.

  31. pamphyila says:

    For years I couldn’t really eat nectarines, peaches or apricots because whatever pesticide they used on them made my mouth pucker and my lips swell. Now I find I can enjoy them if I get them at the organic part of the farmer’s market or store. (Otherwise I stick to fruits I can peel – like bananas and oranges, etc… and I try to get unwaxed cooking apples…)

  32. Mariette says:

    The following article showed up in the NY Times today on 5 easy ways to eat organic: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/22/five-easy-ways-to-go-organic/?em&ex=1193371200&en=5a05b87e57a5edd7&ei=5087

    There are some good links as well as info on which foods are the most pesticide laden.

  33. Monica says:

    Trent, love what you’re doing and appreciate all the work that goes into this website.

    For the first time I have to disagree.

    Store produce tastes like !@@3 because it is genetically altered to be disease and bug resistant. American produce can not be imported in Europe for this reason.

    I hope you get to go to Europe someday and get to taste a real apple, plum, orange, tomato, blueberry, raspberry, grapes or a pear.
    Delicious! Monica

  34. Lori says:

    We had a garden last year and plan to expand and build some raised beds this coming year. I love it when we have our own fresh grown, organic veggies because I know exactly what went into them. The rest of the year, I buy organic when I can. Our homeschool group also has an organic co-op, which is great. I agree that there is a huge difference in the taste.

  35. JT says:

    I tend toward organic because I am allergic to most pesticides.
    It has been brought to my attention recently that some crops are gassed to speed up the growing process.
    Does anyone know if that is prohibited in organic farming?
    What crops are gassed?
    Some farms worse than others? States? Countries?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *