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Organic food: When it isn't worth it
Consumer Reports lists most chemically-laden items and those you can skimp on; plus, how to save.
By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - If you've ever wanted to buy more organic food but didn't want to take out a second mortgage to do so, a new report by Consumer Reports can help stretch your health-conscious dollar further.

For consumers concerned with the possible health effects of ingesting chemicals, the report said buying certain organically grown food is a must, while other items may not be worth the price.

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The study defines organic as food produced without synthetic ingredients.

Certain fruits and vegetables grown using chemicals, which is how most food is produced, were found to retain high levels of pesticides, even after washing, according to Department of Agriculture data cited in the study.

And meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products can contain antibiotics and heavy metals such as arsenic that are used to promote growth in animals.

For that reason, Urvashi Rangan, one of the report's authors, recommends buying organic versions of those items and the following fruits and vegetables: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, spinach and strawberries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, and red raspberries.

Not worth it...But the report, citing the research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, pointed to several fruits and vegetables that generally didn't retain pesticide residue.

They include asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples and sweet peas.

Of course, just because pesticide residue didn't show up in tests doesn't mean the vegetables weren't sprayed. And many people buy organic products simply to help keep toxins out of the environment.

Some items, like seafood and cosmetics, are not worth paying extra for the organic label.

Rangan said that, although seafood is allowed to carry an organic label, the government has yet to develop certification standards, making the label essentially useless. She also said there are no warnings on other pollutants, like mercury and dioxin, found in some seafood.

An organic label on cosmetics is of little value, the report said, as the main ingredient in things like shampoo and body lotions is simply water in which an organic ingredient, such as lavender leaf, has been soaked.

Other labels, like "free range" or "all natural" were found to be meaningless.

For example, the report said standards were so lax that a chicken could be labeled "free range" if its coop were opened for just five minutes a day, regardless of whether the bird actually went out.

How to shop

The report said that, on average, organic food can cost 50 percent to 100 percent more than conventional products.

But there are ways to minimize this bill.

The government found that 40 percent of organic vendors at farmer's markets don't charge a premium for their organic product, the report said.

Buying a share in a community-supported organic farm can also bring the prices of organic produce down below those found in non-organic supermarkets, according to the study.

And of course it never hurts to shop around.

Consumer Reports found that the price of the same jar of organic baby food ranged from 69 cents to $1.29 at various suburban grocery stores in the New York City area.

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