Which Food to Buy Organic (and How to Spend Less When You Do)

    Our expert advice can help you decide what’s most important to buy organic and how to save money when you do

    Eggs, ribeye steak, lettuce with "organically grown" label, butter, red potato, blueberries, milk container, yellow squash and a green apple Photo Illustration: Consumer Reports, Getty Images, Adobe Stock

    Sue Schaefer, 57, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., is facing a conundrum. “I’m a thrifty shopper, but I prefer to buy organic,” she says. “I just feel better when I eat organic.” Because organic products are usually more expensive than their conventional counterparts, she heads to less pricey stores that sell organic food. Even so, inflation is exacting a toll. “We used to buy organic eggs when it was just a dollar difference, but now it’s several dollars’ difference.”

    With overall food prices up almost 9 percent from the end of March 2021 to the end of March 2022, Schaefer isn’t alone in eyeing her grocery list more carefully. In a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,224 U.S. adults in April (PDF), 43 percent of those who said they had bought organic food in the past are now doing so slightly or much less often than they used to.

    There are ways to corral costs, however, such as making informed choices on what to buy organic and what to buy conventional. You can also find ways to trim prices when you do purchase organic groceries. For instance, the big-box and discount stores (like Aldi and Costco ) that Schaefer often shops at may indeed offer lower prices on organics. Keep reading to find out how to pick wisely so that you can cushion the inflationary hit to your wallet and still get the biggest benefits of organic food for yourself and the planet.

    What You Really Get From Organic Food

    Organic can be a loaded term. “There’s a lot of confusion about what it means,” says Kathryn MacLean, RD, a dietitian with UC Davis Health Food and Nutrition Services in California. In CR’s survey, 42 percent of Americans said they thought organic food was more nutritious, and 66 percent thought it was better at limiting their exposure to pesticides or fertilizers.

    What’s true? The rules for using the USDA Organic seal on food include no use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Those that are allowed are tightly regulated, are permitted only when other methods have failed, and must be shown to be safe for people. Organic food is also grown without genetically modified organisms or the ionizing irradiation sometimes used for pest control. For meat, poultry, dairy, or eggs, animals are given only organic feed and raised without antibiotics or added hormones in “living areas that encourage the health and natural behaviors of animals,” says a Department of Agriculture fact sheet. But it can be tough to tell what’s fact and what’s myth when it comes to the benefits you may have heard about. Here’s the lowdown on four common questions.

    More on healthy eating

    Is Organic Healthier?
    That depends. “In general, the protein, fat, and carbohydrates are the same as those in conventional foods,” MacLean says. “The vitamin and mineral content changes are pretty negligible as well.” A 2014 analysis of 343 studies, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic produce contained higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants than conventional produce did. Other studies have found no significant differences.

    Bringing produce, whether conventional or organic, from a distance can have a negative impact on nutrients, says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine in Orono. And the U.S. imports organic food from many countries—almost 100 in 2021, according to Reana Kovalcik, director of public affairs at the Organic Trade Association.

    Does It Have Fewer Pesticides?
    Yes. A small study published in Environmental Research in 2019 revealed that people who switched from a conventional diet to an organic one had lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine. And while what we know about the harm of synthetic pesticides is limited, the Environmental Protection Agency says agricultural pesticide exposure has been associated with asthma, bronchitis, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease, and certain cancers. In addition, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 reported a higher risk of dying from any cause as well as from cardiovascular disease in people with the highest levels of pyrethroid pesticide metabolites in their urine. Some research also suggests that children with greater exposure to certain pesticides are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and that synthetic pesticides may disrupt our endocrine systems, which are responsible for hormone regulation.

    Is Organic Better for the Environment?
    Yes. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can damage soil and pollute water. “Many of the pesticides and synthetic forms of fertilizer, if not managed and fine-tuned, often end up in our water and even in our fish,” says Garry Stephenson, PhD, a professor in the department of crop and soil science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Nitrogen-based fertilizer, often used in conventional agriculture, is a major contributor to air and water pollution, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

    These days, however, some conventional farmers are turning to methods that spare the environment. For instance, some are switching to organic-friendly fertilizer, says Matt Ryan, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

    When it comes to farm animals, organic rules call for them to have year-round outdoor access and to be raised on organic land, and for grazing animals like cattle to have access to organic pastures at least 120 days a year. Space to exercise is required, but animals don’t have to get a certain amount of space or never be caged, and overall, animal welfare requirements for USDA Organic certification are minimal.

    Do the Animals Receive Any Antibiotics?
    Generally, no, with the exception of chickens and turkeys still in the egg and on their first day of life. But routine antibiotics are still widely used in conventional beef and poultry, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections. “That means infections [in animals and people] that used to be easily cured may have the potential to become serious, even life-threatening,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at CR.

    Reap the Benefits of Organic for Less

    There are a slew of ways to save on organics or find nonorganic items with similar health and environmental advantages. A shopping list can keep you from overbuying. To find the best deals, check unit prices, scan circulars, and search for coupons at sites like Coupon Cabin and Passion for Savings, or the websites of organic food manufacturers. Some, like Amy’s Kitchen and Stonyfield Farm, offer coupons for joining their newsletter lists. Consider the following, too:

    Be Picky
    “You can make choices on what to buy organic and what to buy that’s conventional based on factors like what’s available, what’s most important to you, and cost,” Rogers says. For items like produce, “Know When It’s Best to Choose Organic,” below, can help. In addition, “when possible, choose organic for fruits and veggies that you and your family consume on a regular basis, especially if they’re higher-risk,” says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist. And note: A thick peel may offer more protection against pesticides, but some types can make their way into the flesh of the produce or be taken up by a plant as it grows, says Lili He, PhD, an associate professor in the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (In general, you’ll want to wash produce as CR recommends, for 15 to 20 seconds under running water. Peeling may help remove some pesticide residue, but it isn’t foolproof.) For fish and shellfish raised in the U.S., organic labels are meaningless because there are no USDA organic standards for seafood. When it comes to packaged goods like cookies and boxed cereals, manufacturers of organic products are prohibited from using synthetic additives, like artificial preservatives and colors, that you might want to avoid, Keating says.

    Know When It’s Best to Choose Organic

    In CR’S survey, of the 73 percent of Americans who said they’ve bought organic food, the most common organic purchases among grocery shoppers were produce (62 percent), eggs (37 percent), meat and poultry (35 percent), and dairy (32 percent). In this chart, we looked at how you may want to prioritize organic purchases. It’s based on advice from CR experts, information from CR’s 2020 analysis of USDA data on pesticides in 35 kinds of U.S.-grown and imported produce (most of it fresh), and recent average national costs of conventional and organic foods.* Note: We define foods as high-priority if the organic type offers both personal and public health benefits; medium means a product offers one or the other. For CR’s analysis of pesticides in produce, we focused mostly on fresh items, and included data on U.S.-grown and imported when possible. And while organic is usually pricier, it’s less expensive in a few cases, and prices do vary by area and season.

    Priority: High
    Why: To reduce exposure to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers typically used on conventional produce. CR’s 2020 analysis rated 16 out of 35 kinds of produce Poor or Fair for pesticides, making these the most important ones to buy organic. See price comparisons here, aside from cherries, nectarines, peaches, snap peas, and watermelon.
    Apples, Honeycrisp
    per pound
    1 pint
    Pears, Bartlett
    per pound
    per pound
    Green Beans**
    per pound
    1 bunch
    Lettuce, Romaine
    1 head
    Potatoes, Russet
    3-LB. bag
    Spinach, baby (fresh)***
    5- to 6-oz. package
    1 lb.
    Priority: Medium
    Why: Organic cows and pigs aren’t given antibiotics, and the widespread use of these drugs is causing a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Also, organic meat with an “American Grassfed” seal (rated Excellent by CR) means the animal was raised in pastures on a diet of grass and forage. Note that with conventional pork, the pigs can be fed animal byproducts, while cows cannot.
    Ground beef 80%-90% lean**
    Per Pound
    Priority: Medium
    Why: As with beef and pork, to minimize the use of antibiotics and the issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Note that unlike organic poultry, conventional poultry can be given feed that contains mammal or avian byproducts such as manure.
    Boneless, skinless chicken breast**
    Per Pound
    Priority: Medium
    Why: As with the other proteins here, to cut antibiotic use and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Unlike conventional dairy cows, organic cattle can’t be given extra hormones, which are themselves associated with an increase in infections that may need to be treated with antibiotics. Organic dairy cows must also have an organic diet with no mammal or avian byproducts.
    *Price data as of April 29, 2022, from the USDA’s Weekly Advertised Retail Prices report unless otherwise noted. Specific types within each produce category (like honeycrisp apples) were chosen to illustrate price differences, not because they had higher pesticide levels than other types.
    **Price data is from April 11, 2022.
    ***Both U.S.-grown conventional and organic spinach rated Poor, as did imported conventional spinach. Imported fresh organic spinach rated Excellent. U.S.-grown frozen spinach rated Poor, but frozen imported rated Very Good.

    Bag It Yourself
    Consider picking up items like organic grains, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit in stores with bulk bins. “Buying bulk can help you save money because you buy just what you need,” Keating says, “and you’ll also reduce packaging waste."

    Check That Freezer Section
    Whether organic or conventional, frozen produce is less expensive but just as nutritious as fresh. “Frozen foods are picked fresh, at the peak of their quality, and frozen immediately,” says Camire at the University of Maine. To freeze fresh organic produce yourself, wash it, let it dry, then pack it in a freezer-safe container.

    Try Store-Brand Organics
    Aldi, Costco, Kroger, Target, and Walmart are just a few of the chains with their own organic lines, which are often cheaper than brand-name products. A recent online search at Target.com found its Good & Gather organic 2 percent milk for $3.99 for a half-gallon; Horizon Organic, a national brand, was $5.49. CR has found that store and national brands can be comparable in taste and nutrition. “Check the nutrition facts label to see any differences in the amount of sodium, added sugars, and other ingredients,” Keating says.

    Buy Online
    Some online stores offer deals on organic foods. Thrive Market ($60 for an annual membership or $12 monthly) has an extensive selection of organic pantry staples that the company says may save you up to 30 percent off grocery store prices. Online subscription services like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods sell conventional and organic foods that might otherwise be thrown away because of, say, outdated packaging or approaching expiration dates. (Read more about these two services.)

    Take a Look at Local
    Some smaller growers who sell at farmers markets and farm stands, and via community supported agriculture (CSAs, where you pay an up-front fee to get a portion of a farmer’s harvest each week), may opt not to apply for or maintain organic certification because of the cost and paperwork.

    If you find vendors like these, you can ask if they follow organic practices. Prices at farmers markets, CSAs, farm stands, and markets (find them at usdalocalfoodportal.com) are often similar to or cheaper than at grocery stores, depending on where you live and the season. And some accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Or join a member-run food co-op that focuses on local food. (Find one at grocery.coop/all-coops.)

    A Quick Guide to Seals & Claims
    While the term “organic” is generally federally regulated, some others aren’t—and can be confusing. This can help you decode food labels you see.
    USDA Organic Seal
    This certification from the Department of Agriculture is rated Excellent overall by CR.
    100% Organic
    This means all ingredients are certified organic. Products also carry the USDA Organic seal.
    At least 95 percent of ingredients are certified organic. Products also carry the USDA Organic seal.
    “Made With” Organic Ingredients
    At least 70 percent of ingredients must be certified organic, but products can’t carry the USDA Organic seal or use “organic” on their main label panel. Products less than 70 percent organic can note organic items only in ingredients lists, such as “organic carrots.”
    Real Organic Project Seal
    A nongovernment seal, though only farms that are already USDA certified organic are eligible to pursue it. Foods must be grown in soil, not water, as USDA allows. Animals must graze in pastures.
    Has no meaning for most foods. For meat and poultry, the USDA defines this as minimally processed with no added artificial ingredients.
    Not USDA regulated, and doesn’t mean a product is organic.
    Non-GMO Project Verified
    CR rates this seal as Excellent for ensuring very minimal GMO use or none at all. Not USDA regulated, and doesn’t mean a food is organic.
    Certified Humane Raised and Handled
    Certifies livestock were never held in small cages or given hormones. Rated Very Good by CR. But doesn’t mean it’s organic.
    No Antibiotics (or Similar)
    Alone, this means only that an animal was never given these drugs. Verification requirements are weak unless accompanied by the USDA Organic seal or USDA Processed Verified shield. Rated Poor by CR.
    Certified Naturally Grown
    Farmers with this peer-reviewed certification commit to many organic practices. About 8 percent of CNG farmers also carry the USDA Organic seal.
    Regenerative Farming 101
    A small but growing number of farmers are now earning certification (not federally regulated) for what’s called regenerative farming. This aims to stop soil erosion, which is due to climate change and practices like growing the same crops repeatedly, rendering farmland unproductive. It’s also about clean water, “land access for animals, farmworker justice, and healthy world communities,” says Mark Muller, executive director of the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation.

    These farmers use a variety of methods, such as improving the soil by having livestock “massage” nutrients into the land with their hooves while grazing. Regenerative Organic Certified products also carry the USDA Organic seal. Those with Regenerative Organic Alliance or Certified Regenerative by A Greener World (AGW) seals may or may not.

    Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Janet Lee

    Janet Lee, LAc, is an acupuncturist and a freelance writer in Kansas who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. She has been covering health, fitness, and nutrition for the past 25 years as a writer and editor. She's certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Yoga Alliance, and is a trained Spinning instructor.