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The Organic Food Hierarchy: How to Eat Organic & Save Money Doing It

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“This is my last non-organic meal for a year,” he said, biting ravenously into a slice of pizza. 
I looked at him quizzically. Having recently returned from NYC, I was as almost as puzzled by his statement as I was by his decision to ingest crappy West Coast pizza–at all, let alone as a last meal of any kind. 
EATINGORGANIC
I was sitting at a semi-nice restaurant in a semi-nice part of down, enjoying semi-nice weather and a semi-nice salad. It was all a bit above mediocre, but not to the extent that I’d call any of it good. Seated across from me was Shane — a once-upon-a-time client, long time friend, and recent NYC to LA transplant. 
“Shoulda had a burrito,” I offered. If there’s one thing Southern Cali does right, it’s burritos. And how. Actually, I should have had a burrito. My salad wasn’t cutting it. 
Undaunted, Shane pushed on. “For an entire year, I’m going to eat 100% organic. Really taking my health seriously.” 
My eyes rolled, seemingly of their own accord. “And then in 2015, you’re gonna give that up and focus on hookers and blow. Screw health.” The quick-witted NYC snark rolled off my tongue before I could stop it. 
“What? No,” Shane said. “I just mean that it’s my top priority this year, dick.” 
That brought a grin to my face. It hadn’t occurred to me before that, but one thing I missed about NYC dialogue is the fact that insulting someone is usually a term of endearment. 
“I keed, I keed,” I said with a smirk. “It’s a good idea. Organic for the win. Won’t be too difficult out here; there’re organic restaurants everywhere. Gluten-free, farm-to-table, all that stuff.”
Shane gave me a strange gesture that was part tilted head, part nod, and part full-body shrug. I guessed it to mean that I’d stating something obvious. 
“I just wish it wasn’t so damn expensive,” Shane muttered. 
Ahhh, yes. The old Organic Is Too Expensive Argument. It’s not incorrect…but it’s not completely accurate, either. 
Wanting to help Shane, I gave him a rundown. “You know,” I said, “You don’t need to eat 100% Organic 100% of the time to be healthier. And there are ways to make it more reasonable, either way.” 
Obviously, it wasn’t not my intention to undermine him — I just wanted him to have all of the facts before he made the commitment. 
Without question, I recognize that course, grass-fed/organic is generally better for you. But how much better varies by the food. As do prices. Which is to say that, yes, Organic food is typically more expensive, but there are ways to make it less expensive.
Look, I know it can be expensive. And I know sucks. But it’s better for you. And if it comes down to it, I’d much rather you dedicate more money to high-quality food and less to supplements or drinks at the bar.
Of course, there’s not a reason to spend more than you have to. And with that in mind, I want to share the same information I shared with Shane–and so, I present, for your consideration, a few tips to save some money when shopping organic:

Buy Local

Almost without exception, the places closest to you will have the best prices. As such, it’s usually better to shop locally. While my standard recommendation is always “just order from US Wellness Meats,” I’m making that in part because I can testify to the quality, but more so because I don’t know any farms 5 miles from your place. 

My recommendation for US Wellness stands, but if you can support a local farm and get a better price, I think it’s obvious that this is the right option. It’ll require some legwork on your part, and you’ll need to investigate and find the right farm, but it’s worth it. 

This brings me to my next point. 

Talk to Farmers

Sometimes buying local is just as good or better than simply looking for an organic label. You should never discount a local far simply because they aren’t certified organic. Instead, talk to the farmers and see what it is that they do. 
The fact is, those labels are actually very expensive, and many farms can’t afford to maintain the certification…but they have all of the same practices. Meaning that some places are functionally organic, without being Certified Organic. I’m okay with that. I care about the end result, not the label. 

Buy in Bulk

This is always cheaper. Always. For example, if you have the space to store the meat, you can literally BUY A COW and have it butchered. It’s more of an upfront cost than just ordering a few steaks, but in the long run, you can wind up saving 70% on the total cost of the meat. Plus, it’ll feed you for a year. 

Develop Your Organic Hierarchy

Some foods are more important than others. And not all foods are the same importance for all people. Decide what’s important to you, and prioritize. 
For me, the order is: animal products (including meats, eggs, dairy), fruit, veggies, grains. 
Ideally, everything I eat is organic. BUT, when money is an object, I just prioritize and go in this order. 
Meat is by far the most important thing for me. Firstly, I eat a lot of it. Secondly, the largest difference between organic and not is going to be seen with meat. (For example, toxins animals eat are stored in fat, and this is reduced in a grassfed/organic setting.) Thirdly, the practices for treatment of the animal are entirely different. This is a longer conversation, but let’s just say this is important to me. 
For my money, if you can only have one thing be organic, it should be meat. 
However, not far behind this is other animal products. I don’t eat much dairy, but I do want it to come from cows that haven’t been unnecessarily treated with hormones. 
 I very much prefer my fruit to be organic, but I don’t turn down every apple that isn’t. Differences in quality and effect on humans is lower between organic and non-organic fruit than it is for meat. So this makes sense.
Further to that, it should be noted that even within this category, there are things which are more important. 
Veggies…meh. It’s better to have organic, but if I don’t, I’m not worried. If money is tight and you need to save money, it’s okay not to buy organic.
***SIDE NOTE: For both fruits and veggies, being organic is more important for some items than others. This has a lot to do with the pesticide levels used for the farming of these individual foods. 

Make the effort to avoid the “Dirty Dozen”

Apples, Cherry Tomatoes, Grapes, Nectarines, Peaches, Hot Peppers, Cucumbers, Strawberries, Bell Peppers, Celery, Potatoes, and Spinach.
While not technically on the list, I’d also include just about all leafy vegetables.
Further, buy organic berries. They’re not on the list, but they’re hard to wash individually to remove the pesticides.
On the other hand, it’s less important to buy organic when it comes to…

The Clean 15

Sweet Potatoes, Kiwi, Mangoes, Papaya, Pineapple, Asparagus, Avocado, Grapefruit, Mushrooms, Sweet Corn, Sweet Onions, Sweet Peas, Cabbage, Eggplant, and Cantaloupe. 
The Environmental Working Group tested non-organic versions of these fruits and vegetables after they had been thoroughly washed, and found little to no pesticide residue. I suspect that in most cases, this has a lot to do with the skin or rind. Even after thorough washing, an apple is likely to have some pesticides you might eat; whereas something like a pineapple will not, as you’re not going to eat the rind. 
Grains are the wild card. I eat with relative infrequency and in small amounts, so I really don’t care where it comes from. Honestly, most of the time when I’m eating grains, it’s a “cheat” food. There are people in the world who are stupid enough to believe that eating an organic donut is going to do exponentially less harm than eating a non-organic donut. I am not one of them. 

That’s really it. 

As I told Shane, I’m not debating the merit of organic foods. I recognize that they’re better for you. But I also recognize that it can get expensive, so I have no problem acknowledging that some are simply more important than others. And that there are a lot of ways to make a healthy lifestyle less expensive.   
Even if you’re not trying to be so ambitious as to eat completely organic, I do recommend that you make a few changes. And now, you can. Just follow the above steps and you should be able to buy 80% organic 100% of the time–without breaking the bank!
About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • Hi John,
    The biggest reason I hear from people on why they don’t eat organic is the price and when I’m in the grocery store, I completely see why. Buying locally is a great way to eat cheaper and organic and support local farms & businesses. I know you mentioned the legwork, but there are so many great ways to find local farms. Farmers markets are a great place to start and there are always communities on Facebook. Do you have any other suggestions for finding local farms?

  • If only everyone else realized that eating organic wasn’t that expensive.

  • pixelzombie

    It’s odd that potatoes are on the dirty list but not the sweet kind. I’ve read anything in the ground that long with thin skin should be bought organic.

    • John Fawkes

      That’s a good point- I thought potatoes and sweet potatoes were grown the same way. Do they each use different pesticides or something?