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Healthy LivingOrganic

Know Your Food: What’s the Real Cost of Your Food?

June 5, 2012 | Kate Geagan

Meet Kate Geagan
“Sure, I’d like to buy organic, but it’s too expensive.”

For many of us, especially in these tight economic times, the thought of a steeper price tag is the number one barrier that holds us back from adding more organic foods to our fridge. We may pick up that conventional item in the supermarket, compare it with the organic version, and find it hard to fathom why the organic one costs more.

At least, that’s what my parents did when I was growing up. But once I became a registered dietitian, once I really delved into our food system, and especially once I became a mother, my perspective shifted. I began to ask, what’s the true cost of the conventional food that’s sitting in my fridge? Does the cheap sticker price I paid at checkout honestly reflect the actual costs associated with producing that food? Ultimately, it was the answer to those questions that propelled me to change my whole approach to diet and nutrition.

Low Price, High Cost

Our modern food system produces more food, at a lower price, than at any time in history. But what is the true cost of cheap food? While at first glance cheap food fills the noble goal of helping every budget conscious American put enough food on the table, there is a dark side, particularly for the very people who consume it the most. Having such abundant food that’s highly processed and incredibly accessible, it turns out, has been a key driver of our rising obesity crisis and soaring healthcare costs.

Nature, too, is starting to buckle under the intense strain of our modern food system. To me, the phrase “Know Your Food” means more than just scanning the nutritional attributes - it’s knowing what’s behind that sticker price you’re contemplating in the supermarket - and knowing what we do and don’t actually pay for when we buy conventional foods. Here are a few things I hope you’ll consider:

  1. Human Health. Buying organic foods and beverages ensures that you and your family are consuming foods produced without any persistent toxic pesticides, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, sludge or irradiation. For a complete comparison of natural vs. organic see this helpful chart (LINK: http://www.stonyfield.com/why-organic/organic-vs-natural )
  2. Environmental Health. Compared to conventional, organic agriculture doesn’t pollute our waterways, land and air with persistent toxic pesticides and chemicals. Organic agriculture also creates healthier, more biodiverse and drought-resistant soil, and can store significantly higher levels of carbon[1].
  3. Antibiotic Resistance. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, approximately 70% of antibiotic use in the U.S. is for conventionally raised livestock (to help them grow faster, and to protect against disease brought on from crowded conditions[2]). The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more have all implored Congress to limit the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on livestock, as antibiotic resistance undermines our ability to protect our children and ourselves from pathogens and disease.
  4. Animal Health & Welfare. Organic certification ensures specific standards of animal care have been met, allowing animals to engage in more natural behaviors and live in better conditions - such as mandated access to outdoors, grazing, fresh air and sunlight. And organic cows seem to be healthier cows, too: according to the Stonyfield Greener Cow Project, Organic Cows live on average twice as long as conventional cows.
  5. A Bigger Carbon Footprint. Research suggests that the typical American diet creates about 2.8 tons of carbon emissions each year per person, which is more than the 2.2 tons generated every year by the typical American driver[3]. In fact, according to the EPA, food production accounts for about 20% of the total fossil fuel use in the US-greater than any other segment of the economy[4]. While many factors determine the total carbon footprint of your diet, several studies have found that organic agriculture has between a 30-60% smaller carbon footprint (depending on the food being produced), than conventional, primarily because organic agriculture doesn’t use nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers[5].

An Organic Fridge is for EVERYONE

Everyone deserves access to healthy, life-supporting foods they can afford. And the great news is that it’s never been easier to find and add organic foods to your fridge (or freezer or pantry) while being mindful of your food dollars. In many cases, making organics within reach of your family simply means shopping smarter, or doing a little more food preparation on your own rather than relying on convenience food items. Check out these 9 Easy Tricks to Buy Organic on a Budget http://kategeagan.com/2011/11/9-easy-tricks-to-buy-organic-on-a-budget/.

Filling your fridge with organic foods (including whole grains, low fat or nonfat dairy products, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and lean protein) is one of the fastest ways to clean up your body, the planet, and your conscience. It’s food with the highest quality nutrition and integrity, with a price that’s honest. When you buy organic products, you help support visionary farmers who are passionate about making the finest, purest food possible, taking good care of their animals and the earth, while providing us with high quality food. And not only is a nourishing diet apt to save you considerable healthcare dollars down the road, but stocking your fridge with organic foods is also an immediate lever you can push to influence how food companies do business, to use your dollars to nurture a vision of the world you want to live in, and to leave for your children.

To me, there’s no greater bargain.

[2] The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial, available at http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/FSTbookletFINAL.pdf

[2] Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2001. Accessible at http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/hog_front.pdf

[3] G. Eshel and P.A. Martin, “Diet, Energy and Global Warming,” Earth Interactions (2006) 10 (9): 1-17.

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency 2009 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report.Accessible at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/usinventoryreport.html

[5] N. El-Hage Scialabba and C. Hattam, eds., Organic Agriculture, Environment, and Food Security (Rome: UN Food and Agriculture Organization,2002).


There are many publications out there to help you learn more about the importance of avoiding too much processed food.One of America's most recognized nutrition experts, Kate Geagan is an award-winning dietitian who has helped millions to fall in love with vibrant foods that powerfully nourish their lives. Kate is the author of Go Green Get Lean, and has been on the leading edge of helping consumers and health professionals alike recognize the deep connections between a healthy diet and a healthy planet.

A nationally known speaker, author, blogger and consultant, Kate's work is driven by a simple purpose: to help people reclaim their best health, and discover their most vital personal asset, their own personal energy. Kate currently serves as the Nutrition Contributor for Pregnancy Magazine, and has provided her expertise for hundreds of television, radio and print interviews, including several appearances on the Emmy Award Winning The Dr. Oz Show and Access Hollywood.

Learn more about Kate at http://kategeagan.com.

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