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Does Organic Food REALLY Cost That Much More Than Processed Foods?

One question arises often over here, does Organic food REALLY cost that much more than some of the highly processed foods on the grocery shelves today?

We certainly cannot talk about the cost of healthy food without some mention of organic food and its costs. Without going into the debate, the following information extracted from a recent study performed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers some good food for thought.

The USDA estimates that organically produced food can cost anywhere from 10 to 30 percent more than conventionally mass-produced food. For the sake of clarity, lets review the definition of organic.

The USDA has established three basic organic standards:

  • 100 Percent Organic (made using all organic materials and practices)
  • USDA Organic (made with 95 percent organic materials)
  • Made with Organic Ingredients (products in this last category contain 70 percent organic ingredients or more, and although they can claim organic status, goods carrying this designation cannot display the official organic seal)

Typically, the products that are listed as 100% organic are higher in price, and those “Made with Organic Ingredients” are lower.

Does Organic Food REALLY Cost That Much More Than Processed Foods?This photograph depicts a chart of research conducted by Rutgers University (Dr. Firman E. Bear) published in the Natural Gardener’s Catalog. This research argues that organic food contains an average of TWELVE TIMES more nutrient density across all of the listed minerals.

In this case/scenario, an argument can be made that – based on nutrient content alone – although you pay roughly 1/3 the cost for processed foods, you effectively would need to pay approximately FOUR TIMES MORE for all the food required to make up the nutritional difference.

Unfortunately, when we look at all the studies around organic vs. conventional foods, the data is inconclusive. There are just as many findings to debunk the value of organic as there are to support it. This presents a strong suggestion that when it comes to the nutritional quality of food, we are asking the wrong questions.

Mineral depletion is strongly tied to the health and balance of the soil. Overall, mineral composition is affected by geography, climate, and fertilizing practices. There are many environmental and cultural factors that influence the nutritional composition of produce, and these may ultimately play a greater role in food quality than simple organic versus conventional logic. (… and we’re not even beginning to address the concept of picking fruits and vegetables before they are ripe for the purposes of global distribution.)

“The alarming fact is that foods — fruits and vegetables and grains — now being raised on million acres of land that no longer contains enough of certain needed minerals, are starving us, no matter how much of them we eat.”

While it is common knowledge that soil microorganisms influence plant nutrition by virtue of their role in decomposition and mineralization of organic matter, the view that microorganisms stimulate plant metabolism and enhance plant nutrition is certainly more holistic in nature than the quantitative-mechanical view that soil microbes merely breakdown organic matter and release mineral ions into the soil solution.

Since the industry is not regulating soil quality in this way, it is really difficult to target higher quality foods in either camp.


The fewer nutrients found in food necessitates larger quantities of food to meet all the metabolic requirements to support life. This is pretty simple math. Whether you pick organic foods or conventional, it is safe to say that we do receive the most nutrient content in less processed foods. Processing includes everything from baking, broiling, and boiling, to extrusion, homogenization, pasteurization, and isolation … just to name a few.

The real solution comes in a different understanding of food, and not in the arduously overwhelming burden of these ridiculous shopping excursions with a calculator. Nutrition is so much more complex than grams of sodium.

Check out tlc.com/frugal for their short videos, “Saving Big on Groceries: Part 1” and “Saving Big on Groceries: Part 2” for some simple tips on thrifty shopping.

Want less hype and more common sense, check out our post, Adding Complexity is Not the Solution: Basic Economics of a Healthy Diet to find out more!

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