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Organic foods: Are they worth the extra cost?

Some shoppers feel "organic" means the product will be fresher. "Today" consumer correspondent Janice Lieberman did some testing to find out.
/ Source: TODAY

You want the best for your body and for your family. You may be willing to shell out a few extra bucks for good, wholesome foods. These days you can’t stroll the grocery shelves without seeing labels for “organic,” “natural,” “hormone free” foods.

But at often double the price is it really worth it?

First, what does “organic” mean? Karen Anderson of the Northeast Organic Farming Association defines it: “Organic food is produced without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. If it’s a livestock product the animal is fed organic feed and they also don’t get antibiotics.” Aside from being better for the environment as well as being possibly more nutritious, many health conscious consumers believe the product will be fresher.

We decided to find out. We sent two samples of: lettuce, broccoli, chicken and milk to Sani Pure Labs in Saddle River, NJ to be analyzed. The testers did not know which ones were organic and which were conventional. What we found was surprising.

Ron Schnitzer of Sani Pure Labs revealed, “There was a really significant difference between the organic produce and the conventional produce.” As it turned out, the organic broccoli and lettuce had much higher levels of bacteria than the conventional. It’s not harmful bacteria, but it is bacteria that will spoil your produce much quicker. And what that means to the shopper who is spending more for organic, is the product will have a much shorter shelf life.

Well maybe we can live with lettuce that turns brown faster, but what about poultry? When I smelled the conventional chicken at the lab a week later, it had an odor. When I smelled the organic chicken the stench was almost unbearable. “A week later even held at zero degrees it’s putrid whereas its counterpart held identically, still is satisfactory” says Schnitzer.

Grossed out yet? We'll give you a break. The milk although often twice the price of conventional was identical.  Schnitzer finds, “Microbiologically we couldn’t tell the difference between organic milk and conventional milk.”

We wondered why the organic almost always had a shorter shelf life. When you think of organic you think "straight from the farm."  Anderson explains, "The distribution systems for organic products just aren’t as well developed as they are for conventional agriculture products.”  So what that means is it takes longer to get to the market than the well-oiled conventional system. Anderson advises shopping at farmer’s markets to get the freshest organic produce possible. If you do buy organic from the supermarket make sure you check the produce for brown spots or spoilage and use the product as soon as you can. The same goes for poultry.

But many people shop to promote a better environment for our crops as well as for our livestock. One thing that cannot be tested is the way animals have been treated while used for producing a product.

Is it worth the price? That’s for you to decide.

What you saw on "Today"
Here's more about some of the foods discussed on the show:

The "Dirty Dozen": Must-buy organic foods

Apples, cherries, grapes, imported (Chili) nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries

The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that even after washing, some fruits and vegetables consistently carry much higher levels of pesticide residue than others. Based on an analysis of more than 100,000 U.S. government pesticide test results, researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., have developed the "dirty dozen" fruits and vegetables, (listed above) that they say you should always buy organic, if possible, because their conventionally grown counterparts tend to be laden with pesticides. They cost about 50 percent more, but are well worth the money.

Other organic foods worth considering:
Milk, beef, poultryReduce the risk of exposure to the agent believed to cause mad cow disease and minimize exposure to other potential toxins in non-organic feed. These foods contain no hormones, and antibiotics, which have been linked to increased antibacterial resistance in humans. They often cost 100 percent more than conventional products.

No need to go organic with these foods:
FruitBananas, kiwi, mangos, papaya, pineapples

Managing the high cost of organic foods

Why does organic cost more?
Growing the food is more labor-intensive. And even though organic food is a growing industry, it doesn't have the economies of scale or government subsidies available to conventional growers.

How to save money buying organic food
Comparison shop in local grocery stores. Take advantage of local farmers' markets: Many farmers do not charge a premium. Order by mail: Products such as organic beef can be shipped nationally.

Janice Lieberman is the “Today” show’s consumer correspondent. She joined NBC News as a consumer reporter in 1999. She is author of “Tricks of the Trade: A Consumer Survival Guide.” She is a graduate of Rutgers University.