The organic food movement got its start in the 1960s, when increasing environmental awareness and concern about pesticides sparked a new demand for "green" products. Over the past 20 years, the market has grown exponentially, as more and more consumers are seeking safer, more eco-friendly food alternatives.

Enthusiasts claim that organic edibles offer other advantages over standard supermarket fare, including enhanced flavor and better nutritional value. In addition, organic food enjoys animal cruelty–free status (on organic farms, cattle and poultry aren't bulked up with the usual antibiotics and hormones).

But there is a downside to the organic equation, and that's the price. Because organic-food growers use more labor-intensive methods and enjoy fewer government subsidies, these foods are more expensive. And while organic fruit and vegetables cost only 10 to 30 percent more than non-organic items, frozen foods, processed foods, and animal products may be priced at 50 to 100 percent more, according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study.

What's Worth Paying For?

According to the Organic Consumers Union, some standard foods contain higher levels of pesticide residue than others, even after washing. If you're considering buying organic produce but can afford only a select number of items, you may want to consider apples, nectarines, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, celery, and potatoes.

Some foods that do not retain large amounts of pesticides and may not need to be purchased as organic include bananas, kiwi, papaya, mango, pineapple, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, onions, and peas.

Beef, poultry, milk, and milk products may be worth buying organic because organically raised animals are believed to have a lower risk of contracting bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow disease. Also, they're not treated with hormones and antibiotics that could lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Understanding the Labels

If you intend to buy organic, it's important to understand exactly what the labels mean. Also, bear in mind that the USDA makes no claims that organic food is more healthful or any safer than conventionally produced food. That said, the department does confirm that organic methods use reusable resources and conserve water and soil, preserving the environment for future generations.

In order to be labeled with the USDA approved organic seal, foods must meet the following criteria:

  • Animals (used for meat or by-products like milk) are not treated with hormones or antibiotics.
  • Animals are not given feed made from animal byproducts.
  • Animals are given access to the outdoors.
  • Produce is not genetically modified.
  • Fertilizers used contain no synthetic ingredients.
  • Chemical pesticides were not used.
  • It is possible for foods, like cereal or cookies, to be partially organic. If the food is only partially organic, it must be labeled as such, according to the Organic Consumers Union. Here are the guidelines:
    • 100 Percent Organic: All ingredients are organic.
    • Organic: 95 percent of the ingredients are organic.
    • Made with Organic Ingredients: 70 percent of the ingredients are organic.

Foods labeled as natural or all-natural are not organic, but do not contain artificial flavoring. Organic produce may not be as pretty or as big as conventionally grown produce, but that doesn't necessarily affect the taste and certainly doesn't change the quality.