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Buying Organic: Choosing What Matters

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This week, The Washington Post published a piece that sought to answer whether or not organic food is worth the extra price. To do so, they detailed the health and contaminant differences between organic and non-organic meat, eggs, milk, and produce. And in every case, the final "bottom line" they found is that the organic version is slightly better than the non-organic one, but not enough to justify the extra cost.

While they're not going so far as saying that purchasing organic food is a waste of money, they are offering information that leads one to form that opinion. Which means it's a good time to point out that buying organic is still definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

While it's easy to be skeptical about the value of organic foods -- especially when nearly every grocery chain is getting into the mix because they see it as a way to make more dough -- the fact is that by paying more for organic, you're definitely getting more. Or, more accurately, you're getting less. For instance:

Fewer Chemicals In Your Body

In order for the USDA-sanctioned "organic" label to be placed on a product, that product must be grown using "materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole." Meaning, no chemical fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides, no antibiotics, no growth hormones. It's not surprising, then, that organically-grown products have less pesticide residue than non-organic:

Researchers looked at data from more than 94,000 food samples and 20 different crops. They found that organically grown crops consistently had about one-third as many pesticide residues as the conventionally grown versions. Organic foods also were far less likely to contain residues of more than one pesticide.

If you want harder statistics, a different 2012 study showed that organic produce contains 30% lower pesticide contamination that non-organic. And why is all this a big deal? One big answer is that all of those untested and unregulated chemicals may cause cancer. Lowering the amount you ingest lowers your risk, simple as that.

Fewer Chemicals in the Environment

Taking your own personal health out of the equation for a moment, one of the tangible benefits of buying organic is that every item bought is a vote for organic farming methods.

The benefits for the environment are well known: Fewer pesticides are being used in general, which means less pesticide runoff in our water supply, and less energy used by the fossil fuel-burning factories that are producing the pesticides. Also, instead of farms trying to suck every bit of life out of the soil, organic methods focus on sustainability, which helps preserve the soil to be used for future generations.

Every time you buy organic corn, wheat, or grains, you're sending a message to farmers that the organic method is valuable and worth investing in.

All Organics Are Not Made Equally

All that said, if you're working on a tighter budget than you'd like to be -- and who among us isn't? -- there are certainly organic items that offer more bang for your buck than others.

For example, tomatoes that are produced organically are packed with more Vitamin C than non-organics. And organic milk has a healthier ratio of fatty acids than normal milk. Organic eggs, meanwhile, seem to offer no known benefits from a personal health standpoint. (The life quality of the chicken creating those eggs, however, is much better if they're being raised on an organic farm.)

As far as pesticide residue goes, while all organics have less residue than non-organics, there are certain items where the difference is greater than in others. For example, making sure to spend your money on organic spinach, apples and berries is more important than buying organic bananas, avocados and coconuts, whose outer shells give them more of a resistance to pesticide residue. For more tips, check out the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticide in Produce.

Which is all to say: Organically produced food does have substantial and real benefits, there's no doubt. While it's fair to be hesitant about paying the higher price, it doesn't mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. Finding ways to lower prices on organically produced goods is what we should be focused on, not dissuading people from purchasing them at all.

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