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Why organic food can be a real bargain

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Organic food may not be more expensive than conventional food after all

Organic food has a long-standing reputation for being more expensive than non-organic, but that isn’t always the case. And even when it does cost more, it may be worth the extra money it if you value better taste and the purported health benefits of organic food items.

Nevertheless, if you’re like most people who believe organic food is unreasonably expensive, consider the fact that the average price for a dozen organic eggs sold at a farmer’s market was $4.40 versus non-organic eggs sold at the grocery store for $4.18 per dozen, which reflects a mere 5 percent premium on organic eggs purchased directly from the farmer, according to a MOFGA Organic Price Report.

In another survey, a group of Colby College students compared costs for 21 organic and non-organic items at five different area grocery stores, and they found a wide range of price differences. For example, organic brown rice sold for 10 percent less than non-organic, and organic oatmeal cost a penny less than its non-organic counterpart. However, organic ground beef cost 134 percent more, which illustrates the cost of organic varies greatly depending on what kind of food you’re comparing to non-organic.

In an additional effort to keep organic food costs as low as possible, farmers selling directly to consumers may compare their organic food pricing with grocery stores to counter the common belief that farmers’ market prices are high. Indeed, the Colby students found that organic lettuce cost an average $3.54 per head at the grocery store, while organic lettuce sold by farmers through retail outlets, primarily farmers’ markets, cost an average $3.00 per head, which is 18 percent less than a head at the grocery store.

Similarly, a report from the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont around the same time found that for all except one organic item surveyed, the price was less at farmers’ markets than at grocery stores. Meanwhile, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has swiftly grown in the last two decades, from an estimated 1,755 farmers’ markets 15 years ago to a current figure of 5,274.

Those who believe organic is healthier, even when some foods are clearly more expensive, frequently justify paying more for organic by pointing out the alternative cost of medical care. For example, every year Americans spend an estimated $117 billion to manage diseases associated with obesity, an amount that far exceeds any money saved from eating non-organic foods.

In this regard, the cost of organic food may very well be less than people believe, as evidenced by the fact that, on average, national grocery store chains often charge more money for basic items than quality discount grocery stores that sell organic food and other items without pesticides, such as Trader Joe’s. Even Whole Foods, which is typically seen as a “pricier” competitor, has foods that sometimes cost less than popular conventional grocery stores like A&P, Vons and Ralph’s.

Knowing the cost and quality of foods you’re buying certainly helps. For example, organic ketchup at Trader Joe’s costs considerably less than at other nationwide health food store chains, and mass produced non-organic chains.

In the meantime, here’s a list that summarizes some of the savings you can enjoy on organic foods simply by shopping around:

1. Extra large AA fertile eggs: $2.79 at discount health food stores; $4.75 at a leading health food store chain.

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2. Organic grass-fed whole milk (1/2 gallon): $3.29 at discount health food stores; $4.29 at a leading health food store chain.

3. Organic grass-fed butter: $4.79 a pound at discount health food stores; $4.00 for most non-organic national brands. You can easily justify the $0.79 difference considering that pesticides and radioactive metals accumulate in cow milk.

4. Raw organic cheddar cheese (per pound): $5.49 at discount health food stores; $9.99 at elite health food stores.

5. Raw almond butter: $15.99 in a boutique health food store; as little as $4.99 at a discount health food store.

6. Organic mustard: $3.99 at a boutique health food store; $0.99 at a discount health food store.

7. Organic peanut butter (HFCS-free, hydrogenated fat-free): $7.99 per jar at nationwide health food stores; $3.99 at discount health food stores; $3.19 for non-organic, high-sugar, hydrogenated cottonseed oil versions.

Of course, there are still a lot of organic foods that really are considerably more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. Yet, there are numerous benefits that organic food advocates say make certified organic food worth a premium price. This includes a growing body of research indicating that organic foods tend to have higher concentrations of nutrients and antioxidants than conventionally grown foods. In this regard, it may be wise to focus on the value of organic food instead of its price, especially as it pertains to your health.

Bottom Line: Whether motivated by benefits to their own health, or the health of the environment for future generations, or any of a variety of other motivating factors, consumers who believe in the benefits of organic agriculture will buy it whenever possible. For those who find an all-organic diet too expensive, tools are available to help you find the best times and places to buy organic.

Also researching the Internet to compare current organic prices to conventional foods can help those who want to plan as many organic meals as possible even if they can’t afford an all-organic diet.

There is also an annual “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides” published by the Environmental Working Group that uses pesticide residue testing data from the USDA and FDA to rank fresh produce items based on the extent of pesticide residue contamination (www.ewg.org/foodnews/list/).

SOURCES: 1. National Institutes of Health, “The economic burden of obesity worldwide: a systematic review of the direct costs of obesity,” (2011 Feb;12(2):131-41. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2009.00712.x). 2. Environmental Working Group, "All 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue data". 3. NOFA-VT Pricing Study, “Vermont Farmers’ Markets and Grocery Stores: A Price Comparison,” (January 2012).