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Image: Valeria Zaitsevia
Mary Altaffer  /  AP file
Valeria Zaitsevia buys bread at the Bread Alone organic whole grain bakery stand at the Union Square Farmers Market in New York.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/17/2008 11:26:54 AM ET 2008-07-17T15:26:54

If you’re like me, your household budget is getting clobbered by the one-two punch of $4-plus-a-gallon gasoline and higher food prices. Most of us can find a way to drive less, but we all have to eat.

To stretch their food dollars, people are changing the way they shop. For some, that means buying fewer organic products or taking them off the shopping list entirely.

“The statistics aren’t available yet, but there’s definitely been trading down by consumers in many areas,” says Brian Todd, CEO of The Food Institute, a non-profit organization in Elmwood, N.J., that tracks supermarket trends. “Consumers are going from national brands to private labels and from more expensive produce, and that would include organics, to lower-priced produce,” he says.

I went to the store this week and did some comparison shopping. Organic bananas were nearly twice as much as conventional ones. Organic Braeburn apples were a dollar more per pound than the non-organic. And there was a 50-cent-per-pound premium for organic avocados.

When a half gallon of organic milk costs $3.89, a loaf of organic bread is $4.39 and you have to shell out $2.99 for a dozen large organic eggs, it makes traditional food products look mighty appealing.

“Before the economy went bad, organics were the wonder child of the food industry. There was double-digit growth and everybody was excited about it,” says Bob Vosburg, an editor at Supermarket News. “Now manufacturers realize that organics are potentially on the outs as this economy gets worse and people are starting to become really wallet-conscious.”

Organics on a budget
Maybe you’d like to keep some organic products on your shopping list, but you’re not sure which ones to choose. Here’s how to get the most bang for your organic buck.

“In general, meat, milk and eggs are really worth buying organic,” says Lisa Lee Freeman, editor in chief of Shop Smart magazine (published by Consumer Reports).

If you’re strapped for cash, she suggests prioritizing your produce purchases. Skip the fruits and vegetables that tend to have little or no pesticide residue and focus on the ones that are more likely to contain these chemicals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tests produce for pesticide residue. The Organic Center, a non-profit group in Boulder, Colo., analyzed the USDA data and converted it into a relative risk index, based on the amount and toxicity of the pesticides found.

Leafy greens and fruits and vegetables with a soft skin, such as strawberries, peaches, and raspberries, are more likely to contain pesticide residues and sometimes higher-risk pesticides. Fruits and vegetables with a thick skin that’s not eaten, such as oranges, bananas, and pineapples, tend to have very few residues, if any.

Based on its analysis of USDA data, The Organic Center says the following produce items present the highest risk when grown conventionally:

Domestically Grown Conventional Fruits

  • Cranberries
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Pears

Domestically Grown Conventional Vegetables

  • Green beans
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Potatoes

Imported Conventional Fruits

  • Grapes
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Strawberries

Imported Conventional Vegetables

  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Lettuce
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes

Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, tells me organic is less important for healthy adults than it is for children. “Our children are so much more vulnerable to exposure to these chemicals than a healthy adult,” Benbrook says. So if you have to limit the organics you buy, go with the fresh fruits and vegetables your kids eat.

Here’s something else to consider. Freeman at Shop Smart magazine says imported fruits and vegetables tend to have the worst pesticide levels. “So whenever you have a choice between buying domestically grown or foreign grown, always choose domestic over foreign,” she says.

More ways to save
Many supermarkets now have their own line of organic products, especially canned vegetables. Shop Smart found them to be significantly cheaper than brand name organic products.

Don’t forget the memberships clubs. Costco and Sam’s Club have a large selection of organics.

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Another money-saving option: conventionally grown canned or frozen vegetables.

“Packaged goods tend to have zero or only slight residues,” says Linda Greer, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are cleaner, so to speak, than the fresh produce we buy.” Greer tells me the processing that takes place before produce is canned or frozen appears to remove some of the pesticides.

Some organic manufacturers, such as Stonyfield Farm, Organic Valley and Horizon Organic Dairy now post coupons on their websites.

My two cents
I’m a big believer in organic farming because it’s a good for us and good for the planet. But even so, my wife and I don’t buy all organically grown food. We have to pick and choose. Every family has to live within a budget. So don’t beat yourself up if you find that you can’t afford to buy as much organic food as you'd like.

Right now, the local farmers market might be a good alternative. The produce is usually fresher and it may have fewer pesticides. Talk to the farmers. Ask them how they grow their crops.

If you want to keep some organics in your diet, prioritize your shopping with the list of “Organic Essentials” from The Organic Center.

Remember: Eating produce, however it’s grown, is better than not eating it. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet.

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