Is organic food worth the higher cost?

March 19, 2008


Organic Oreos? Yep. These days, supermarket shelves are also stocked with organic Ragu pasta sauce and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. According to ShopSmart, the shopping magazine published by Consumer Reports, organic foods, including fruits, meats and dairy, may not be on everyone's shopping list, but more and more people are reaching for them anyway.

It's getting so easy to buy what seem to be better-for-the-consumer-and-the-planet versions of favorite products.

Foods certified "organic" are often worth the extra money. They're produced under federal rules that in some cases make them safer, better for the environment and maybe even more nutritious. But there are lots of other labels that are misleading. The "natural" label, for example, gets slapped on all kinds of products.

Even products with labels that are legit, including most organics, aren't always worth buying. The editors of ShopSmart explain that one big reason is that more are coming from places as far away as China. Long-distance shipping gobbles up lots of fuel and generates pollution. And all that food is being produced worlds away from U.S. regulators.

So what labels can be trusted? Before splurging on a carton of "cage-free" eggs, a can of "dolphin-safe" tuna or other products that sound healthful or planet-friendly but may not be, the editors of ShopSmart suggest reading up on what's worth it and what's not when it comes to food labels.

Meat, poultry, eggs and dairy

Worth it: USDA Organic/Organic. This label is the real deal. It certifies that animals are given 100 percent organic feed, which helps consumers avoid toxins such as arsenic in conventional feed, and that the product is friendlier to the environment.

Buyer beware: Free range/Free roaming. While it sounds as if the animal spent its life outdoors, the rules for these labels are weak. For example, if a chicken-coop door was open for five minutes a day, regardless of whether the chickens went outside, poultry could be considered free range.

Coffee and chocolate

Worth it: USDA Organic/Organic. Organic coffee and chocolate are produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers or the strongest pesticides, which prevents pollution and protects farm workers.

Worth it: Fair Trade Certified. This label, which appears on coffee, chocolate, cocoa powder, fruit, rice, sugar and spices, means that a fair price is guaranteed to the farmers.

Might not be Worth it: Shade-grown (coffee). Coffee grown in shade requires fewer pesticides and encourages biodiversity. But the words don't mean much if they're not associated with a certifying organization like the Rainforest Alliance or the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.


Might be Worth it: Farm-raised/wild-caught. Those labels, as well as country-of-origin labels, are government regulated. In some cases, one is better than the other, depending on the type of fish. Wild-caught salmon, for example, has fewer contaminants like PCBs than farm-raised. But farm-raised tilapia is a good choice.

Buyer beware: Dolphin safe. Federal law regulates the use of these words and similar language that suggests dolphins are protected. But the law doesn't require certification for all tuna labeled dolphin-safe.

Fruits, vegetables, beverages, pasta, oils and packaged foods

Worth it, usually: USDA Organic/Organic. Organic is the way to go, especially when it comes to produce that tends to have high pesticide residues when grown conventionally. But packaged foods have different organic labels. "100% Organic" means only organic ingredients are allowed and is the most meaningful label. "Organic" means at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced; the rest can be nonorganic or synthetic ingredients. "Made with Organic Ingredients" means at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. But remember that junk food made with organic ingredients is still junk food!

For more on how to avoid food labeling rip-offs, check out the eco-labels center at

- Visit the Consumer Reports Web site at <a href=""></a>.


lounger 10 years ago

Pretty good article but...We feed our family Organic produce and Organic soy milk. Once something is processed it isnt organic to me and 100% Organic is REAL hard to find. I Eat a raw food diet half the time and no question about it-Organic IS better.

gr 10 years ago

"Organic Oreos?" Just shows that "Organic" doesn't necessarily mean healthy!

"a can of "dolphin-safe" tuna" makes your kid go, 'Mom, this tuna doesn't taste as good'.

Anyone notice that USDA is always worth it in the article? And I thought they were the scamming wagon jumpers.

Adrienne Sanders 10 years ago

Farm raised/ wild caught doesn't mean much when it comes to fish. What means a great deal more is the country of origin. Anything from anywhere in Asia- well, they don't regulate things like the US does (not that the US is perfect- not by a long shot) and farm raised might mean raised in filthy water, wild caught might mean caught by methods that are terribly ecologically damaging.

Flap Doodle 10 years ago

Get more fiber by eating the box the cereal came in.

Richard Heckler 10 years ago

Depends on whether or not the shopper is concerned about keeping toxic carcinogenic compounds completely out of the food chain.

No use promoting cancer.

Mkh 10 years ago

Real organic food is always worth it and always the way to go, regardless. The article makes a good point that consumers need to be able to identify real organic products from those "natural" products that are just pretending.

I strongly suggest that everyone read the groundbreaking book "Seeds of Deception" by Jeffrey M. Smith. It is an incredible work exposing the terrible dangers of GMO foods and how the agriculture industry and federal government have manipulated the public into believing it's safe.

GMO foods are literally poisoning the population and destroying the fragile ecology of the Earth. Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have already moved to completely ban GMO foods from their countries.

Especially if you have children, spend the extra few dollars to get your kids off GMO foods and beverages.

But also it's not enough just to buy organic, it is necessary to buy local, organic whenever possible for a variety of obvious reasons...on that note, the Farmer's Market opens April 12th.

alm77 10 years ago

Well the organic milk I bought last night wasn't worth it. My daughter came in this morning and said "MOM? When did you buy that milk?"

"Last night. Why?"

"It's chunky."

Not a good start to our new idea that we're going to buy organic...

Mkh 10 years ago

alm77....I would take that milk back to the supermarket and complain if I were you. I've been buying organic milk for a while and never had that problem, it always lasts as long as anything else parishable in the fridge.

alm77 10 years ago

Mkh, I'm planning on it. Glad I still have the receipt. But yeah, it just seems like a challenge too early in the change. The date on it says March 29. I don't think they have proper refrigeration in that section. I'll go to the Merc next time...

Tammy Yergey 10 years ago

What I found was that organic foods didn't have partially-hydrogenated oils in them. Bad stuff. So I've gone organic just for that.

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