Grocery Prices: Name Brand vs. Store Brand vs. Organic

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Here are the results of a recent study by industry research firm IBISWorld that compared the price of an average grocery cart in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago.

In general, organic products cost about 20% more than simply name brand items. However, the organic grocery cart is nearly 40% more expensive than a cart filled with store-branded products whenever possible. I wish there was more information on what makes up an “average” grocery cart, but I’m guessing it contains a wide variety of items.

Which reminds me of a previous post on which fruits and vegetables you should buy organic. If you value organic but are still on a budget, certain conventionally-grown vegetables retain much higher amounts of pesticides than others. Prioritize your spending with this updated list from (you can even download an iPhone app with the chart):

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  1. The organic vs. conventional food debate as it pertains to $ at the grocery store is sort of misleading. Yes, the price you pay at the grocery store is usually going to be more (though I’ve found some instances where that isn’t true) but there are a lot of ‘costs’ to eating conventionally grown food. We just don’t pay for them at the checkout line.

  2. I always thought the cost of living in NYC was higher than LA.

    I wonder why buying food in LA is more expensive.

  3. free_thinker says

    a novel thought here, why not just wash your fruits and veggies… presto chango and its FREE! Come on people eating an apple from the grocery store is not going to harm you in the least.

  4. What troubles me most about this chart is that they think that “Average of US” encompasses three of the largest urban populations in the country. That’s hardly an average of US. It is merely an average between the cities listed.

    I’m sure if you through Podunk, Iowa into the mix it would seriously bring down the average.

  5. FWIW, I hate those these are the items you should buy organic.
    Organic is as much about what you put in you, as what you are doing to the earth. This is just one of the reasons why BIG AG has been able to able to steal the real value from the organic label.

  6. I don’t really understand the chart. Organic food is *still grown with pesticides* so how does buying organic help? Do you really think “natural” pesticides are somehow safer than synthetic ones? If anything the opposite would be true.

  7. i wash all, especially those like apples, where we eat the skin. so i save my $ from spending on org. produce.
    To me where organic DOES ‘pay’ is in dairy & meat: no rGH, + healthy animals leads to healthier meat/ dairy.

  8. Budget Gal Angie says

    I find this study to be very interesting. I’ve never been much on the organic food bandwagon, simply because the products are just so much more expensive. My monthly grocery budget doesn’t typically stretch far enough to include organics.

  9. Lisa:

    but there are a lot of ‘costs’ to eating conventionally grown food. We just don’t pay for them at the checkout line.

    What costs, exactly?

  10. You can’t wash off all pesticides/harmful residues. They did the testing to create that list after normal washing procedures, and then ranked them.

  11. Kuzbad-
    a few people have already mentioned the environmental costs: (water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation, etc). Also– your tax dollars go to subsidize corn, thats the reason corn– and everything that can be made from it- to include beef, chicken, pigs and even fish! now, as well as all sorts of packaged foods, HFCS etc. is so cheap. Our conventional food system also uses up a lot of fossil fuels (19%)- more than any other sector of the economy.

    Healthcare costs are another ‘hidden’ cost. For example, lets consider one small portion of the “conventional food” problem- beef.

    Cows were made to eat grass. They were meant to graze and lay in the sunshine. Instead we feed them corn because its cheap and fattens them up quick. Corn fed cattle is the major contributor to E. Coli outbreaks. When we feed corn to cows they need medicine because they become so sick (a condition called acidosis) when eating a corn diet. The cow’s digestive tract normally has a neutral pH but becomes acidic when eating corn. The acidity has led to acid tolerant/resistant E. Coli strains. When cows were grass fed this wasn’t a big problem because (our) stomach acid used to kill the bacteria, now its resistant. When you have all these cows packed together in feedlots (and economically feedlots make sense because it gives us cheap hamburger), standing knee deep in feces thriving with E. Coli- what happens when they get to the slaughterhouse/meatpacking? Its all over their fur and in their gut, and can easily contaminate the meat.

    Because cows get so sick on corn diets we give them antibiotics (for the acidosis) and growth hormones– we have to bulk them up and stave off illness just long enough to get them to the slaughterhouse.
    Most antibiotics sold in the US today end up in animal feed. A practice that is leading directly to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. All because we want cheap hamburger. Whenever a shortcut is taken we PAY for it somewhere else. What are the healthcare costs of people that contract E. Coli? Think of all the costs from Swine Flu-a virus that was largely a consequence of feedlots. We are part of the same microbial ecosystem as the animals we eat…whatever happens to them happens to us. The sick cows get slaughtered. What will we do with all the sick humans when we have no antibiotics that will treat us? There are no ‘real’ shortcuts. “Efficiency” is sort of an illusive term when it comes to our food supply. “We vote with our dollars” and I think thats the (most) practical way to affect change.

    I would HIGHLY encourage anyone to watch the documentary Food Inc or read any of Michael Pollan’s books (The Omnivores Dilemma, In Defense of Food) for more information on the ‘conventional food’ dilemma.

  12. Lisa, I appreciate the lengthy reply, thank you.

    However, my big caveat with your post is–very little of it has anything to do with being organic (which is what you spoke of in your initial post)! For instance your 2 paragraphs on cow health have little (nothing?) to do with organic anything!

    E. Coli outbreaks are NOT just (or even primarily) because of animal feeding patterns. Fecal contamination is basically the root cause (including human feces–a problem in certain parts of the world where human feces is used as a fertilizer). If you recall the big spinach recall out maybe 2 years ago, that was traced back to wild pigs iirc. Organic is in no way helpful for the majority of these breakouts. Secondly, a cow eating organic corn is an organic cow. Apples (even organic apples) are another fairly common source of e. coli. So is lakewater. Organic would seem to have little relevance here.

    Are you REALLY trying to claim that swine flu was because of non-organic agriculture? That would seem to me to be very difficult to claim or backup. We’ve had influenza (swine flu influenza even!) outbreaks for thousands of years. It is probable that human agriculture and human civilization has an effect on the spread of influenzas (Duh I guess!). Unless you get rid of human civilization and agriculture, it’s going to remain as a problem. This is clearly not an acceptable fix. I fail to see any correlation.

    “(water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation, etc)” — all of which are possible with organic. You think largescale organic agriculture (which is less productive than non-organic) is going to lessen fossil fuel emissions? You think largescale organic agriculture which frequently relies on animal manure is going to lessen the number of animals? Soil degradation always seems a red herring to me–organic can help maintain soil (or it can not) but non-organic doesn’t imply bad soil. Water pollution is absolutely an issue (and an important one–I would argue this is the only REALLY valid and important point in your post), but again, there are PLENTY of organic pesticides and insecticides out there, many of which have not been as thoroughly tested. For instance one I have personally used in my garden is chrysanthemum oil. The good thing about it is that it has a short-half life. The bad thing about it is that while it’s believed to be fairly safe, it’s classified as toxic and I know of no largescale human studies of its effects. Do you know which pesticides and insecticides have been used on your organic produce?

    I have no problem with organic. I try to keep my home gardens free from chemicals (but if I need to, I spray). Organic is NOT a panacea however. So many of these correlations that you (and, to be fair, many others!) see (or think they see) I think do not stand up to science.

  13. Kuzbud-
    You are right about the misdirect going from organic to beef– I should have clarified that my point was less about ‘organic’ per se and more about sustainable agriculture which would generally include organic. But you are right- an organic corn fed cow is still a corn fed cow. I saw this quote and I think it describes what Im trying to say: Organic farming is not simply the substitution of approved input materials. It is the replacement of a treatment approach with a process approach to create a balanced system of plant and animal interactions.”
    -Rodale Institute

    You are right that E Coli is a fecal problem, and yes it can be caused by humans as well as other animals. Most strains of E. Coli are harmless. The point I was trying to make is since feeding corn to cows/their stomach becoming acidic the worst strains of E Coli (particularily E. Coli O157:H7) have become super bugs. And contrary to what you said, Cattle have in fact been implicated as the most important source of E. coli O157:H7. When cows ate grass, yes they had E. Coli but because their rumen’s had a neutral pH, human stomach acid killed the bugs. Now the E Coli can thrive in human stomach acid and, as you know, it can be fatal.

    You are right that organic food (organic apples) being contaminated with E Coli has little relevance to being organic. But again, what Im talking about is more sustainable agriculture, and I was just using the cows as one example. In the CAFO lots where beef (and other animals) are bulked up for slaughter they have PONDS for all the manure sludge. If it rains those easily flood and run off into streams/rivers/lakes. The same holds true for pesticides/insecticide (running off into streams/rivers/lakes). There is a dead zone in the Gulf Of Mexico some 6000 sq miles because off all the waste we allow to runoff into the Mississippi river.

    Im not trying to claim the swine flu is because of non-organic culture, Im saying it can be attributed to our ‘conventional food system’ which only cares about making bacon as cheaply as it possibly can, consequences be dammed.

    I disagree that water/air/soil pollution from sustainable farming occurs on anywhere NEAR the same level as conventional methods. You mentioned large scale organic agriculture- large scale anything is not sustainable in the long run. Im sure its a step up from the way we’re doing things now, but large scale organic will still have many of the same problems as large scale conventional. Just think about what farms looked like a few generations ago–farms were smaller, farmers grew a wide variety of crops/animals. The animals grazed and pooped- fertilizing and enriching the soil with every meal. In some of the books I’ve read (The Ominvores Dilemma I think references this) farmers know that if they plant x crop next to y crop they have a beneficial relationship because one will deter pests for the other and vice versa. No fertilizer or pesticides have to be sprayed. I don’t know much about organic fertilizer or chrysanthemum oil. The veggies I grow don’t get any of that. Since we live on a military base we can’t have a compost pile (or much of a garden for that matter), but that is the only fertilizer I’d throw on them if. Currently they just get some coffee grounds every now and then. 😉

    Your statement that non-organic doesn’t imply bad soil- I say thats partially true. Well, lets put it this way, ‘large scale organic’ is probably as detrimental to the soil as is conventional practices.If you are practicing sustainable farming (ie rotating crops, not over farming) but spraying toxic chemicals all over your crops, then the soil degradation might be mitigated somewhat. Soil degradation by definition is the loss of nutrients/bio-activity and unless you are practicing sustainable methods (organic or not) you’ll end up with the same result. Growing a wide variety of crops (ideally without toxic chemicals) helps maintain the nutrients and biodiversity of the land, healthier soil produces healthier food. Organic food is actually less susceptible to pests because it is forced to use its own natrual defenses to protect it– this in turn means a healthier apple for us with more micro and macro nutrients.

    I noticed you didn’t make any mention of the healthcare costs. I know in my example I only referenced the cost of people sick from swine flu or E. Coli. The far greater cost of our food is the number of overweight people and all the health problems associated with it. Obesity related problems adds roughly $150 BILLION dollars to our healthcare tab. But at least our hamburger is cheap. It seems like the root of all evil seems to be the government subsidies on corn (and to an extent soybeans). I wonder how profoundly it would affect our entire food ‘system’ if we stopped subsidizing corn. All those cheap calories all of a sudden would stop being so cheap and, gasp, we might have to grab an orange instead of a bag of cheetos.

    The problem is American’s want cheap food. We spend a smaller % of our income on food than most other countries. And our conventional agriculture has produced a cheaper calorie. It shows in our waistlines. Organic food is a step in the right direction, but even it has its problems.

  14. I meant to include this link too– interesting read (albeit a bit old):,8599,1917458,00.html

  15. I’m not sure how much detail you want, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey has breakouts of grocery spending by category; they use this to determine what to include in the CPI.

    Fresh fruits and vegetables are $434 of the average “consumer unit’s” $3,744 annual grocery bill — so buying organic instead of average would cost an additional 40% ($180/year)? Anyone who’s ever been to Whole Foods would say that’s low.

  16. Lisa, thanks for the thoughtful replies.

    Since you clarified that it’s not the difference of conventional vs organic, but conventional vs smart, I actually do agree with most of your points. A couple miscellaneous notes: we have too many people in too concentrated areas for the idealized small family farms of yore. Besides which, many of these small farms were not that small at all! It’s nice to claim that organic eliminates the need for insecticides and pesticides, but this is not true. Never seen anybody claim that organic crops are better able to defend themselves, that’s a new one to me–any further info? Of course there are many plants which grow well together and some that drive away some pests (everybody knows marigold+tomatoes for instance) and it’s good in theory AND in practice. However, you can’t stop everything, and it doesn’t always work. Hard to do on a large scale and much more labor and maintenance intensive. On the otherhand, look at something like the boll weevil–thanks to good monitoring and elimination programs, cotton has gone from being one of the most chemically intensive crops to possibly needing no pesticides! Smart use of smart chemicals. If you rely on purely natural fertilizers (ie compost and largely–poop) you’re going to need a lot of animals. If you’re going to only have pasture grassfed cows, etc, they take a heck of a lot more space. See slash and burn agriculture and pastureland in the Amazon for why this might be a bad thing.

    If you take the attitude that “large scale anything” is not “sustainable” then why don’t you just quit now–obviously the only solution is fewer humans, so let’s just stop breeding. I don’t buy that. One thing I’ve heard many pro-organic supporters talk about is dead soil on farms and announcing crop rotation as if it was some lost knowledge only now rediscovered. I wonder if these people have ever been on a farm?

    Deadzones sound really scary, but they are not simply because of “waste” — they are because certain chemicals (for instance nitrogen–something in ALL fertilizers, organic or not) that cause algae to grow much faster than normal. The algae reduces oxygen level in the water, and fish die. It has little to do with toxicity or “nastiness” of the runoff.

    Healthcare costs–I’ve yet to see any study that shows organic food has more nutrients or is healthier for you. The American cancer society says there is absolutely no scientific evidence that the low levels of herbicides and pesticides found on produce has negative impact on human health (that’s not to say there is DEFINITELY no proof, but that nobody has found any yet). Corn is again irrelevant to conventional / organic / etc. You may disagree with subsidizing corn production (I definitely agree with you here) but it’s a question completely unrelated to the issue at hand. Organic / conventional != fast food problems. If a practice is smart (like crop rotating) it’s smart whether you’re using newer insecticides or not.

    And FWIW I’ve been composting pretty much all my compostable household waste for about 2.5 years (since moving into this house) and have gotten maybe 1-1.5 cubic yards of finished compost. That’s decent, but it’s not a heck of a lot–I need to buy manure, etc from local stores to fertilize my garden patches (maybe 300 sq ft).

    So basically I guess my point on all of this is that there’s a BIG difference between organic and sustainable and conventional. I think organic is very much a red herring and potentially harmful on a largescale. I support aspects of organic agriculture with the proven and highly effective aspects of conventional agriculture.

  17. lisa,

    I can’t be bothered to hunt down the proper studies and statistics to provide you, but I trust you will do so. The gist of what you are saying is that the actual cost of food is not fully encompassed by the dollar value we place on it; however, even at the value we place on it, many, many people go hungry for lack of purchasing power. Easily as many health issues are caused by malnutrition as there are by obesity-related conditions. However, without the use of pesticides and insecticides, the crop yields would diminish and the dollar cost of food would increase, leaving many more without food. It is very easy to say that there is a healthier, more natural way to harvest and eat, but one should take care of the ramifications that many experts believe organic farming would leave billions without food.

  18. I think the organic prices can be misleading. Yes, whole foods is stupid expensive. (I am in Austin TX, they are all over down here.)

    However, going to a local farmer’s market is a lot cheaper for some stuff. My girlfriend is into going biweekly to get stuff and will frequently get me vegetables and meat there. Some of the stuff is pricier, some is cheaper. Spinach is much more expensive at the farmer’s market, but green beans are almost 1/2 the price. there is also a new place called sprouts which claims to buy all organic and local. They are consistantly cheaper than HEB, Kroger, etc. on several things
    (for the record, I don’t care, load it up with pesticides. The GF will just buy stuff there for me and I do love saving money…)

  19. I think we’ve covered pretty much everything but I will touch on just a couple things you mentioned.

    Yes organic is more labor intensive— last time I checked there are LOTs of people looking for jobs. And yes, if we have pasture raised cattle it will take a more land. This would mean the cost of beef would go up, and, imagine, maybe we wouldn’t eat beef 5 nights a week. Im honestly not too concerned about the supply of beef going down and the price going up. TWO THIRDS of American’s are overweight. We’re consuming FAR more calories than our bodies can metabolize, it would be a great thing for our waistlines, our health, and our health insurance costs if we just ate less. If you price beef out of people’s budget (at least to the point that maybe its something you have twice a week instead of five nights a week) we’ll be forced to make some healthier choices. Also- grassfed beef is (it said in that Time article I posted) 40% (?) lower in fat. That is substantial. So we’d be eating HEALTHIER beef and less of it if cows ate grass (it would also significantly impact the E. Coli issue and the amount of antibiotics used in animals). Some of our corn fields could be converted to cow pasture so we wouldn’t necessarily need more land, it would be a matter of “reallocating”.

    As far as large scale anything not being sustainable and “just quit now.” I have to go back to the TWO THIRDS of Americans are overweight. There is Plenty Of Food, there is so much food that 2/3 of us are consuming more than our fair share. I live in Japan and all the farmland around here is small plots. There is no mass produced anything here. I buy our produce at a co-op type place and the cost is dirt cheap…..somehow they are able to make the dollars and cents work so that I can buy a bag of tomatoes for $1.20, even on a small plot of land. The Japanese do it all by hand– I have seen a few tillers but mostly they are out working hard in their fields doing it by hand. It can be done. Also– there aren’t many overweight Japanese.

    Yes it is the nitrogen that causes the dead zones but that seems like kind of a passe view, that all fertilizer has nitrogen. So because all fertilizer has nitrogen that makes it ok to use– especially large scale? Whats going to happen when its not 6000 miles of dead zone but 600,000. Will there be any fish left? All of this (the sustainable agriculture) also ties in directly with environmental issues and its scary. Its concerning that we just keep on doing the same thing, damn the consequences. There is no other country on Earth that has as terrible of a diet as we do–all because of our “food system.”

    You had asked about organic foods being able to defend themselves better as well as being healthier for you. I will quote an excerpt from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food:
    “Crops grown with chemical fertilizers grow more quickly, giving them less time and opportunity to accumulate nutrients….industrial crops develop smaller and shallower root systems than organically grown plants. Deeply rooted plants have access to more soil minerals. Biological activity in the soil almost certainly plays a role as well, the slow decomposition of organic matter releases a wide range of plant nutrients, possibly including compounds science hasn’t yet identified as important. Also, a biologically active soil will have more mycorrhizae, the soil fungi that life in symbiosis with plant roots….In addition to these higher levels of minerals, organically grown crops have also been found to contain more phytochemicals- the various secondary compounds (including carotenoids and polyphenols) that plants produce in order to defend themselves from pests and diseases, many of which turn out to have important antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other beneficial effects in humans. Because plants living on organic farms aren’t sprayed with synthetic pesticides, they’re forced to defend themselves , with the result that they tend to produce between 10% and 50% more of these valuable secondary compounds than conventionally grown plants.”

    Also- the trailer of this might catch your attention:

  20. Scott D-

    Im not sure what statistics you are referring to. You said many people go hungry for lack of purchasing power. Are you referring to the entire world population or Americans?

    You said, “easily as many health issues are caused by malnutrition as there are by obesity-related conditions.” What is really amazing is that the American diet has bred a new creature– a human being that can actually be overweight (overfed) AND undernourished. Conditions that were once eliminated (beriberi, rickets, scurvy) are now reoccurring because our American diet is based on quantity rather than quality. There may be as many health issues from malnutrition as obesity, but there are far more obese people than there are hungry people.

    Obviously I know there are plenty of people who go hungry in the world. However, I’d say a large number of American’s that suffer from that problem choose not to help themselves. I don’t feel much pity for someone who chooses to buy a fancy cell phone or cable or internet or [insert non-necessary item/service here] and then complain about how they can’t afford food.

  21. Lisa, I think we have covered it all pretty much (and again, I don’t think we necessarily disagree as much as it sounds like) but I do think the Japanese example is an interesting one. The Japanese import some 60% of their food, and the farming industry is highly subsidized! I’m not sure how compatible huge subsidies are with wanting to change the way agriculture works on a widescale?

    American farmers are of course also highly subsidized–eg, a family friend is paid some 20k+ a year to NOT grow tobacco (which he wouldn’t grow anyway, as it’s no longer profitable unless you can grow ~100 acres).

    I completely agree re: obesity in the US. I don’t think hunger for any meaningful percentage of people is a problem in the US, and for those percentage, it’s not the availability of food that is the problem, but other factors.

  22. Very interesting! I’ve found organic to be at least 20% more than conventional across the board. But….if you buy mostly unprocessed organic items (and no processed convention items) you’d be surprised at how affordable it can be.

    I’ve also found that “real” food fills me up a lot faster and we go through less food overall.

    And like others have mentioned, there are so many hidden costs associated with conventional foods (including pollution, obesity, neurological disorders, and on and on).

    If you want a good book to get more info, check out Omnivore’s Dilemma or if you are the watching type, check out Food, Inc. 🙂

    Love the site by the way. I’ve been a lurker for a really long time. LOL

  23. I know this is very much after the fact, but I came across this website today–here is the real cost of our cheap food.

  24. I’ve also found that “real” food fills me up a lot faster and we go through less food overall.

  25. Since organic products (especially those that are highly processed–i.e. cookies, crackers, chicken nuggets: good lord, have you seen the price on a small box of those?!, etc.) are so much more expensive than conventional, I find that by eating organic, I am more compelled to buy whole foods and cook from scratch at almost every meal–even when I feel too tired to do so, if I don’t allow fast options to be in the freezer or pantry, I somehow muster the energy to still get food on the table with less expenditure of energy than I initially anticipate. Convenience foods are eaten as a treat. Meat and dairy are consumed sparingly. Beans and other legumes are used much more frequently than before. And I don’t eat nearly as much junk, especially candy, as I did before choosing to live pesticide-free–organic chocolate is pretty darn pricey. I am spending more money than before but am now eating more like my grandparents and my ancestors before them did. The government subsidies and overall cheapness of food created over the past 30 years or so have made us live in a distorted reality. In 1950, families in the U.S. spent about 20% of their income on food. I am sure that’s pretty accurate for most of history, perhaps it was more like half before the industrial revolution. Now the average household in America spends about 10% on food (half of that is spent at restaurants), and the amount of nutrition consumed is probably much less since we eat so little fresh produce. A large portion of my family has ties with the agricultural industry–my father a conventional chicken farmer and my uncles producers of conventional soy beans. It has not been easy for me to come to terms with the damage Agribusiness has made on our nation’s soil and overall health, but I think it is good for us to do what we can to make it better. It’s worth the cost.

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