Most of us have been in the following situation: You’re at the supermarket and want to choose organic options, but the prices give you pause — especially when you see the cheaper conventionally-grown counterparts just a few feet away. The sticker shock can easily lead you to ponder: Does organic really make that big of a difference? The short answer is yes, says Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.
First, pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming are toxins, plain and simple. “Consider what these chemicals were made to do: Mess up the nervous system or hormone system of a bug, or the genetics or growing potential of a weed,” Dr. Rawls says. Sure, you’re exposed to lower doses than the insects and weeds are, but food does soak up a significant amount of chemicals, and they can build up in your system over time.
Case in point: One study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people who said they often or always buy organic produce had significantly lower amounts of a common type of insecticide in their urine. Those findings held true even when the participants ate 70% more servings of produce per day than those who rarely or never purchased organic.
What’s more, most herbicides and pesticides are fat soluble. “When you eat them, they deposit in fatty tissue, which includes your nerves and brain, so they really can impact everything in your body,” says Dr. Rawls. And while taking certain herbs like andrographis, berberine, and chlorella can help your body detox, as can practicing healthy behaviors like staying hydrated and exercising regularly, it may not be enough to counter a steady influx of toxins from your diet.
So how bad is it if these toxins build up in your body fluids and tissues, and if you want to avoid them, what are some realistic ways to eat more organic foods without breaking the bank?
The compelling reasons why organic matters
Studying the effects of ingesting farming chemicals is costly and takes years, but scientists are now starting to examine the impact. And unfortunately, the news isn’t encouraging for anyone.
For example, research has found that 8- to 15-year-olds with higher levels of a common pesticide in their urine were more likely to have ADD or ADHD. Other research has found that women who eat fruits and vegetables known to have high pesticide residue are more likely to have fertility problems, according to a recent report in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Scientists have also looked at people who work with pesticides regularly. Their research has linked chronic exposure to the chemicals with respiratory problems, memory disorders, skin conditions, depression, miscarriage, birth defects, cancer, and neurological conditions, according to the University of Washington’s Center for Ecogenetics & Environmental Health.
Chemical pesticides and herbicides can also damage the food itself, says Dr. Rawls. “When farmers spray pesticides and other chemicals on growing crops, it kills the soil, so they then have to dump on a ton of fertilizer to provide the nutrients,” he explains. Compare that to what Dr. Rawls calls living soil — chemical-free soil that has an entire ecosystem of microbes and insects that contribute beneficial nutrients to the crops and inform how they grow.
The fallout of growing in non-living soil? Non-organic fruits and vegetables have lower levels of beneficial antioxidants and other healthy phytochemicals when compared to organically-grown produce, according to a meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition. Another study found that conventionally-grown meat and dairy had 50% less beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than organic, grass-fed versions.
One more compelling argument for buying organic: The environmental impact of conventional farming. Chemicals sprayed on fields and crops travel through the air, where they spread indiscriminately and leak into streams, waterways, and other water sources. That can impact animals who live in or drink the water, and the people who consume them. And as overuse of popular herbicides leads to resistance in weeds, manufacturers are turning to stronger, even more volatiles chemicals.
Clearly the argument for buying organic is convincing — but that doesn’t make the prices more affordable. Fact is, it simply costs more for farmers to ward off weeds, insects, bacteria, and other harmful things with chemical-free tactics, and those costs transfer to your shopping cart.
But there is good news: It is possible to eat mostly organic food even if you’re on a tight budget, Dr. Rawls says. It’s a matter of how and where you spend your grocery dollars. Here are a few of Dr. Rawls’ tried-and-tested tips to help you eat organic without breaking the bank week after week.
7 simple tips for shopping and eating organic on a budget
1. Buy (and eat) more non-packaged fruits and veggies.
It sounds counterintuitive, but what truly drives up the cost of any grocery bill is packaged and prepared foods, Dr. Rawls says. Think crackers, chips, breakfast cereal, pasta, snack bars, canned soup and sauce, and treats, as well as pre-washed and trimmed produce like spinach and carrots.
“I’ll roll my cart, which is 80% full of organic, fresh vegetables, fruit, and other raw materials, into a checkout lane behind someone with a cart full of boxes and plastic containers, and I’ll have a lower bill, even after they’ve used a bunch of coupons,” Dr. Rawls says. He also notes that all those wheat- and grain-based packaged foods are carbohydrate bombs that are high in both starch and sodium, which can raise your risk for diabetes and other illnesses.
There’s also something to be said for the actual process of prepping your own food. “There’s physical activity involved in chopping and cooking and mixing, which will only benefit your health and reduce healthcare needs,” he says. “When you factor those things into the long-term cumulative costs, fresh organic foods end up being extremely cost effective.”
If your time is as tight as your budget, try consolidating your kitchen prep time. Setting aside an hour to two after your grocery trip to wash, trim, and chop produce minimizes clean up and saves you time during your busier days of the week.
2. Be conscientious when making your grocery list.
In-season organic produce typically isn’t much more expensive than conventional fruits and veggies, Dr. Rawls says, so consider the time of year when meal planning and making your shopping list. You can find several seasonality charts online, such as this one from the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which charts popular foods by month rather than just season.
Certain organic produce also tends to be more affordable than others, Dr. Rawls says, especially basics like cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and sweet potatoes. And be sure to check your grocery store circular (you can typically find it near the entrance or online). It highlights specials or sales, often including organic produce and other foods. Once you know what’s in-season and/or on sale, plan for recipes with those ingredients.
And don’t forget the frozen food section. Often, organic frozen versions of fruits and veggies are cheaper than fresh ones. Rest assured, too, that freezing does nothing to nutritional content, plus frozen produce works great for casseroles, stir-fries, and smoothies.
3. Buy in bulk.
Joining a CSA, which stands for community-supported agriculture, is another way to get a lot of in-season produce for less money. Many farmers who sell at farmers’ markets offer them: You pay upfront for an entire season, and every week for a set period of time, the farmer delivers your “share” — usually a box brimming with a range of in-season, freshly-harvested organic produce.
Not only can CSAs help make organic affordable, they often introduce you to new (and delicious!) vegetables you might be unfamiliar with. If you get more than you can eat that week, look for recipes for soups, stews, and sauces that you can prepare now and freeze to enjoy later.
Warehouse/membership stores that sell items in large amounts have also started stocking more organic foods. You may get a lot at once, but if you wrap and store properly, fruits and vegetables can last in the fridge for longer than you may think. (Half Your Plate offers a great guide for storing and extending the life of your fresh produce.) Large packages of organic meat, chicken, and seafood can also be separated into dinner-sized portions and frozen for later.
Check the frozen food sections of warehouse stores, too. You’ll often find oversized bags of berries, for example, which are typically one of the priciest items to buy organic — and one that tends to have high levels of pesticide residue when grown conventionally — at a fraction of the cost of the fresh version.
Likewise, when your local supermarket has a sale on organic meat, wild salmon, or items like organic beans and rice, buy triple or even quadruple the amount you need, and stash it in the freezer or pantry. Your bill will be higher that week, of course, but when making your list the next few weeks, go to your reserves first.
4. Consider where you shop.
While there are plenty of upscale health-food stores that sell great organic produce and food, discount grocers have greatly expanded their organic offerings, including in the produce section. Aldi, for example, got a lot of press last summer when it expanded its Chicago-area stores and began focusing on more fresh, organic, and vegetarian products.
Many grocers are also carrying more organic options under their private-label (aka generic) store brands. For example, Walmart’s Great Value brand offers organic virgin olive oil, steel cut oats, frozen mixed veggies, peanut butter, and more at affordable prices.
5. Reduce waste.
When you cut broccoli, do you usually throw away the stalks? What about the tops of celery and its leaves? Much of what Americans toss in the trash while preparing produce not only can be eaten, it can be delicious if you know how to prepare it.
Broccoli stems, for example, are tougher and more fibrous than the florets, but slicing them finely and soaking them in vinegar and oil can turn them into a delicious side dish or salad. Plus they contain the same load of vitamin C and other phytonutrients as florets. And all sorts of stalks, leaves, and/or stems can be used in smoothies, sauces, stocks, and more.
Also, be sure that whatever veggies and fruit you buy, you actually eat them. Americans throw away more than 39 million tons of food every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Other studies show we toss 30 to 40 percent of the food produced in the United States, according to the non-profit Food Forward. So take regular inventory of your fridge before deciding to spend money on a dinner or lunch out.
6. Embrace meatless and pescatarian meals.
Organic or not, meat, pork, and poultry can drive up a grocery bill almost as much as packaged and processed foods. Organic canned beans and large bags of organic rice, on the other hand, which together make a complete and filling vegetarian protein source, are incredibly affordable, according to Dr. Rawls.
“You can often find cans of organic beans for a dollar each, and organic rice is usually only about a dollar more than conventional,” says Dr. Rawls. Likewise, organic tofu, lentils, and other foods you use to round out plant-based meals are often cheaper than their meat counterparts — not to mention they add an abundance of healthy phytochemicals to your diet.
For pescetarian dishes, wild salmon — essentially the “organic” version of fish — provides much more nutritious bang for your buck than meat or poultry thanks to its load of omega-3 fatty acids (the healthiest fat available). While it can be more expensive than farmed salmon, you can often find it on sale and load up your freezer (see “Buy in bulk” section above). “Canned wild salmon is even cheaper,” Dr. Rawls says. “Mix it with a pasture-raised egg, a little oat flour, and diced celery to make salmon patties — they’re a perfect protein source that taste delicious, too.”
7. Buy organic when it matters most.
If you can’t go all organic all the time, buy conventional when it comes to foods with thick rinds, peels, or skin that you don’t eat. “If something has a thick skin, the pesticides and herbicides aren’t going to be able to penetrate as much,” Dr. Rawls says. Avocado, bananas, sweet corn, melon, and acorn and butternut squash are all great examples.
On the other hand, get to know the “Dirty Dozen” — the foods that tend to be the most saturated with farming chemicals, according to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Anything with thin or no skin will have more; tomatoes, for example, really soak up the pesticides, as do celery and apples,” says Dr. Rawls. Check out the EWG’s shopper’s report, too, on the pesticide residue found in the most popular produce.
Also consider supplementing your diet with herbs, which deliver beneficial phytochemicals that have been cultivated out of many crops. “We’ve cultivated our food over the last 100 years to just taste good — so it’s higher in carbohydrates and doesn’t have any of the bitterness of ancient foraged food,” Dr. Rawls says. That bitterness and other protective phytochemicals not only helped safeguard plants from insects, they delivered incredible health benefits. Smart herbs to reach for include berberine, andrographis, gentian, dandelion, and burdock root.
With these tips, it’s possible to keep your exposure to pesticides relatively low and improve your overall health, no matter your budget. And that’s an investment that will keep paying you back in valuable dividends the rest of your life.
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