More than a food-label these days, the term “organic” radiates ecological virtue, health consciousness and financial status, in the form of the willingness to pay more - sometimes much more - for the food you eat. Once the lifestyle choice of just a small group of consumers, organic products are now purchased at least occasionally by the majority of Americans. Riding the trend, Rodale's hoary “Organic Farming” magazine recently changed its name to “Organic Life,” joining such titles as “Organic Living,” “Going Organic,” and even “Organic Spa.”

Organic products represent over 4 percent of total food sales and about 10 percent of baby food and snack sales, with organic fruits and vegetables the most popular category. And those dollars are no longer spent solely at Whole Foods or a natural food store. Nearly 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores now carry organic foods with good selections available at Costco, Trader Joe's and Walmart. When it comes to feeding their children, eight in ten U.S. parents say they purchase organic products, citing health reasons and a desire to avoid pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified organisms. 

The Price Differential

Interestingly, some organic products cost about the same or just a little more than conventional groceries. In a price study, Consumer Reports found organic lettuce, carrots, maple syrup, olive oil and cream cheese for about the same price as their conventional counterparts.  But the price difference is often significant. For example, you may pay $2.58 more for a 5 pound bag of organic russet potatoes than for conventional ones, and a dollar a pound more for organic vs conventional granny smith apples. Organic boneless skinless chicken breasts can cost almost $4 a pound more  than nonorganic chicken.    

Families who regularly purchase organic products spend an average of $125 a week at the grocery store, compared to $110 a week for those not buying any organic items. And those who sometimes choose organic foods spend more per shopping trip and shop more frequently than those who do not, perhaps because fresh organic foods may not last as long. 

However, prices can vary widely among grocery stores. A basketful of 60 to 72 organic items cost about $45 more at Whole Foods than at other grocery stores in three cities according to a 2014 study. Pay attention to local prices, since those at Wegmans in Washington DC came very close to those at Whole Food. 

The reason organic food usually cost more is that eschewing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides means that the crops require more intensive labor and management, such as hand-weeding, more expensive fertilizer, a longer time to produce crops, and pricier living conditions and organic feed for livestock.

Health Benefits of Organics

Organic foods may be healthier for you in two ways. They can reduce the level of pesticides and other chemicals in your body. And they may provide more robust nutrition. The first of these is pretty well proven, though authorities disagree on whether higher chemical levels are actually a health risk. The second notion is widely dismissed by experts, though some recent evidence supports the notion of higher nutrient levels in organic food. 

Children and adults who eat only organic foods have lower urinary pesticide levels and also lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to studies. Does this mean that organic foods are healthier for children? “Maybe” says the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also notes that pesticides are no longer the major threat they were to children’s health because of advances in pest management.

When it comes to nutrition, two analyses of multiple studies in 2009 and 2012 found little evidence that organic foods are more nutritious. A July 2014 metanalysis reopened the issue finding that “organic crops and crop-based foods contain up to 69% more of certain antioxidants, are four times less likely to contain pesticide residue, and have significantly lower levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium.” 

The lead author of the 2014 study says the findings suggest that switching to organics would help people consume additional antioxidants equivalent to eating an extra portion or two of fruits and vegetables per day, but other experts have challenged the accuracy and importance of the study. While most authorities agree that buying organic doesn't necessarily translate into better nutrition or health, there is currently not sufficient scientific evidence to know the health impact over a lifetime. 

For certain groups, organic foods may have special benefits. For example, a March 2015 study found a higher quality of male semen, such as sperm counts and percentages of normally-formed sperm, in men who have lower pesticide residues. And young children, whose brains are developing quickly, may be most vulnerable to chemical exposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics counsels that families can save money by being selective about which organic foods they purchase. 

Key Foods To Buy Organic

If you’re going to spend some of your money buying organic products, how do you choose?  The Environmental Working Group has assembled a list based on pesticide residue. Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and potatoes, for example, have higher levels. While produce such as avocados, pineapple, sweet corn and sweet potatoes generally have low pesticide residue [see chart].

Consumer Reports has prioritized the organic food categories that provide the most benefit for individuals and the environment. Fruits and vegetables get the highest priority. Poultry, beef and dairy, which may contain antibiotics or growth hormones, get a medium to high priority. And packaged foods a low to medium, although there may be benefit for children because of that lack of food additives and synthetic dyes. “Organic” does not apply to fish or seafood, nor to water, even though a farmer’s market vendor once tried to sell this author “organic water.” 

The Bottom line   

Nothing wrong with choosing organic if you can afford it, and doing so helps support farming methods that are healthier for the soil and water supply. While the health benefits of reducing your consumption of pesticides have not been proven, there are enough hints in the medical literature to arouse some caution. But it's foolish to let the premium prices you pay compromise your budget.

To save money, be aware that the prices for organic items can vary greatly at various food outlets, so shop around. If you can find organic items for about the same price or even cheaper than conventional products, go for it. Buying at farmers markets, when feasible, can also get you locally grown produce which, having traveled less, may be tastier. Keeping delicious produce on hand can itself be a health boost if it helps you eat more fruits and vegetables. 

Whatever you buy, wash and peel produce before eating, and try to choose domestic rather than imported products, and eat a wide variety of foods. That not only helps you get an optimal mix of nutrients, it can reduce the chances of exposure to a large amount of a single pesticide. 

*Chart Source: Environmental Working Group