Buy organic, but be wise

May 18, 2008|By Gregory Karp | Gregory Karp,THE MORNING CALL IN ALLENTOWN, PA.

As food prices continue to soar, consumers might find it tough to swallow premium prices for organic products. But you can save money if you're smart about buying organics.

Organic means the food is produced without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or antibiotics and generally emphasizes using renewable resources and conserving soil and water. Consumers frequently buy organic food for environmental reasons and because they consider it to be more healthful.

Organic produce typically costs 25 percent to 100 percent more than non-organic. That premium price becomes more difficult to manage when all food prices are rising so fast. Prices for organic food have been increasing along with conventional foods.

Here are do's and don'ts when trying to save money on organic food:

*Don't settle for "natural."

The term "natural" on packaging has a lot less meaning than "organic," a term highly regulated by the Department of Agriculture. When price is an issue, don't pay extra for something called "natural" or "all natural."

*Do pay for some fruits and vegetables.

It's worth paying more for organic versions of some fruits and vegetables that retain pesticide residue, even after you wash them. Pay for organic versions of peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organic research group.

* Don't pay more for fruits and vegetables with thicker skins that have far less pesticide residue.

You can skip the organic onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papaya.

*Do buy organic protein-rich foods.

Meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products are worth buying as organics because they are free of pesticides, synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics.

*Don't buy highly processed organics.

Breads, oils, potato chips, pasta, cereals and other packaged foods, such as canned or dried fruit and vegetables, are probably not worth buying as organics unless price is no object, Consumer Reports said. Much of the health benefit of being organically produced has been processed out.

*Do buy organic baby food.

Baby food tends to be made from condensed fruits and vegetables, some of which might contain pesticides. Or make your own baby food from organic whole fruits and vegetables.

*Do buy local.

You can find organic food from local farmers' markets and local producers. "The nice thing about it is it's not only fresher, but it's cheaper," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

*Do try store brands.

More supermarkets and large discounters, such as Wal-Mart, are offering private-label organics, which are cheaper than name brands.

*Do use coupons.

Look for coupons for organic products in the Sunday newspaper or go online to the free coupon database at CouponMom.com and enter the search term "organic." Get coupons directly from organic producers' Web sites and sign up for their e-mail newsletters, which contain coupons, suggests Stephanie Nelson, who operates the CouponMom Web site. Examples are OrganicValley.com, SCOjuice.com, ColemanNatural.com, and Stonyfield.com. The site Healthesavers.com has printable coupons for some organic products.

*Do cook at home with whole foods.

Dining out less could easily make up the price difference between buying organics and non-organics. And cooking with bulk, whole organic ingredients is cheaper than buying prepared organics.

"Cooking with whole-food ingredients is quite a bit cheaper than processed foods," Cummins said. "It takes more time, but it tastes better."

Nelson compared prices for organic bay leaves as a spice, which cost $3.49 at the supermarket but just 14 cents for the same amount from a local natural market.

*Do grow your own.

If you are the gardening type and have a backyard, grow your own vegetables and receive the side benefits of exercise and a regular hobby.

yourmoney@tribune.com

Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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