By Kelli B. Grant
Apples just became public enemy No. 1 to shoppers looking for pesticide-free foods.
A recent screening from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found pesticide residue in 98% of the popular fruit, the highest rate of all the produce it examined. That was enough to push apples to the top of the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” shopping guide of items to buy organic. The free pocket-sized list, released today, aims to help shoppers on a budget figure out which items are best purchased organic. Last year, apples ranked fourth.
“Consumers should shop with an abundance of caution,” says Mark Kastel, the co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group. Although all of the foods screened meet government guidelines for acceptable pesticide levels, he says, studies have pointed to problems stemming from even minute levels of exposure.
Although buying organic may be desirable, it’s not always in the budget. At online grocer FreshDirect.com, regular strawberries — which placed third on the Dirty Dozen — are half the price of organic ones, while a half-gallon of organic milk at Safeway sells for a 27% premium.
But there are ways to make going organic more affordable. Try these five:
1) Prioritize. If you can’t afford to go all-organic, all the time, start with items that may retain relatively high levels of pesticide. By the Environmental Working Group’s estimates, someone buying organic versions of the 12 worst offenders – including apples, celery, strawberries and spinach – could cut her pesticide intake by 92%. Skip organic versions of goods on its Clean 15 list, such as onions, sweet corn, pineapples and avocado, which have low levels after you’ve cleaned and peeled them.
2) Shop seasonally. The premium to buy organic is much smaller on produce in its peak season, says Jill Cataldo, founder of the Super Couponing workshop series. Some New Jersey Shop Rite locations currently have organic blueberries on sale for $1.99 per 4-ounce container — $0.50 less than the price for conventional berries. Deals from farmer’s markets are also at their best.
3) Pick the store label. Most big-name supermarkets have their own lines of organic products as well as the regular store label. It’s still more expensive than buying the regular version of a favorite brand or the store’s own brand, but much cheaper than getting the organic brand name. For example, a half gallon of Safeway’s O Organics fat-free milk is $3.29, $1.10 cheaper than brand-name Horizon. (A half-gallon of regular fat-free milk goes for $2.59.)
4) Buy in bulk. “That’s a great way to buy staples,” Kastel says. ShopOrganic.com sells organic brown basmati for 4 cents per ounce, while Safeway has it for 17 cents. (Of course, the smallest size available in bulk is five pounds, nearly three times the size of the store package.)
5) Clip coupons. Roughly 10% of available manufacturers’ coupons as for organic products, says Teri Gault, the founder of The Grocery Game. The go-to sources for online coupons have a few deals, but your best bet is to head directly to the manufacturer’s web site. Stonyfield Organic currently has a Facebook coupon for $1.50 off a half-gallon of organic milk, while Amy’s Kitchen has one for $0.75 off a box of veggie burgers. Also look for coupons good for “any” of a brand’s products, which would let you get say, the organic Bertolli pasta sauce instead of the regular, Gault says.