Buying Organic Food on a Budget – How to Go Organic without Going Broke

By  Leanne Beattie –

Step into any supermarket these days and you’re sure to find a wide variety of organic foods on the shelves. From produce, milk and meat to breakfast cereals and snack foods, consumers have their pick of certified organic products—a far cry from the time when you could only find organic items in natural foods stores. The demand for organic foods continues to grow. According to the Organic Trade Association,  organic  food  sales  have grown about 27.5 billions in 2010. More than half of Americans have tried organic products, and this number is expected to increase as more people become aware of the long-term effects of pesticides and chemicals.

People buy certified organic foods because they believe organics are healthier than conventionally farmed foods. (Read  “Why Go Organic”  to learn more.) But adding organic foods into your diet can be expensive! Does your whole diet have to be organic or are some  conventionally  grown  foods just as healthy?

Prices for organic foods have dropped in the past five years, but organic items are still generally more expensive than conventionally grown foods.

If you would like to buy organic anyway, here are some tips to make an organic diet more affordable:

  • Make a gradual transition  over the course of a year to familiarize yourself with prices and products.
  • Comparison shop  to find the most economical organic items. Within the same city, organic produce prices vary greatly. Sometimes the large supermarket chains will win out, while other times natural food stores (chains or privately-owned) can be more affordable. By shopping around, you’ll get a general idea for which foods are cheaper at certain stores, or which location offers the most deals overall.
  • Create your meal plans  around the most affordable produce, meat and grain products.
  • Improvise recipes  if an organic ingredient isn’t available or affordable. You might find something else that works just as well, or even better than the original ingredient.
  • Invest in organic meat, cheese and milk  (over produce and grains) if your grocery budget is tight. Conventional meat and dairy products often contain hormones and show the highest concentration of pesticides.
  • Find local organic growers  and buy directly to save money. Farmers markets often offer organic items.
  • Select seasonal produce  as much as possible. If you want strawberries in winter, for example, buy frozen (or else your pocketbook will suffer). Frozen organic produce is often available at big warehouse stores as well.
  • Prioritize your produce.  Certain produce items tend to be highly contaminated with pesticides (try to buy these organic), while others tend to be relatively low in pesticide residue (save money and buy these conventional). Here’s the scoop:

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently completed an analysis of conventionally-grown (non-organic) produce to measure pesticide residue levels. Based on the results of almost 43,000 tests, EWG estimates that consumers could reduce their pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent if they avoid the most contaminated foods and ate the least contaminated foods instead. Eating the twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables, referred to as “The Dirty Dozen,” exposes the average person to about 15 different pesticides each day, while someone eating the least contaminated will be exposed to fewer than two pesticides each day. (Download a pocket guide to the Dirty Dozen  here.)

The  Dirty  Dozen: Top 12 Foods to Buy Organic

If you have budget constraints, your money is doing more for your health when you put it towards organic varieties of the following fruits and vegetables (listed in descending order, starting with greatest levels pesticide contamination):

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes (imported)
  8. Spinach
  9. Lettuce
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Blueberries (domestic)
  12. Potatoes

The Clean 15: Save Your Money & Buy Conventional

If going totally organic is too difficult or pricey, play it safe and eat the following conventional produce items to minimize your exposure. These are known to have the least amount of pesticide residue (listed in ascending order, starting with of lowest levels of pesticide contamination):

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Avocado
  5. Cabbage
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Eggplant
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cantaloupe (domestic)
  12. Sweet potatoes
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Watermelon
  15. Mushrooms

When eating conventional foods, be certain to peel away edible skins and outer leaves (such as those on lettuce) as pesticides are often concentrated there. Remember to wash all produce (conventional and organic) thoroughly with a natural fruit and vegetable cleanser. Peeling and washing can help  reduce  (not eliminate) pesticide exposure, but also results in the loss of valuable vitamins and nutrients (like fiber). When you have the choice between an organic item and one that’s conventionally grown, choose organic as much as possible. To see EWG’s complete study results, and the rankings of 43 different produce items, visit their website,

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  • Melissa Egg

    You know, it always bums me out when an article encourages buying conventional to save money. That seems like sort-sighted and self-centered advice. Thinking about the farm workers and the environment, it would be best to even buy the “Clean 15” items from organic producers. Pesticides hurt people.

  • Wesley

    “Invest in organic meat, cheese and milk (over produce and grains)” That’s a statement that is very problematic. Meat of any kind, whether organic or not, as well as dairy products, are far worse for our bodies and our health than what this author is aware of. Heart disease, various types of cancer, diabetes and high colesterol can all be avoided simply by chosing produce and grains over meat and dairy – if it is an animal or a direct animal by-product, then it is not the best thing to consume. The most awesome thing about grains and veggies etc. is that most people would be able to grow these themselves – thereby knowing what pesticides etc. are being used.

  • jeff mogul

    just because something is certified organic does not mean that it is. (certified by who). If we are fortunate enough to know the farmer who grows our produce, or better yet, grow as much of our own food as we possibly can, we will be much better off.

  • Thanks for the tips, Leanne! Where I live, organic milk is unheard of and there’s also very few local farmers, let alone a farmer’s market. So most of the organic products (99%) available in stores are imported. Sometimes I get my organic products online but shipping can be prohibitive for products that are heavy. So your point on improvising recipes is what I do most of the time. I just have to make do with I can find or what I can afford from stores.

  • Denise

    Great article, very helpful. Why was carrots not listed under either category? Some people peel them and some don’t, either way they should be washed, but they can absorb pesticides in the ground where they grow. Any thoughts?