Food Retail

Organic eating is pricey, but is it really that healthy?

Produce at a Whole Foods store in Berkeley, Calif.
Jane Wells | CNBC

Nowadays, everyone at the grocery store is paying more for less. At the same time, this particular food's supporters frequently tout its health benefits, while naysayers claim it's little more than a marketing gimmick.

It's just another day in the life of the organic food craze, where products that claim to use only natural methods to grow and produce food represent almost 5 percent of U.S. total food sales — exceeding $35 billion in sales in 2014 and up more than 11 percent from the prior year, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Over half of U.S. families are buying more organic products than a year ago, the association added, and the country as a whole is shipping more than $500 million in organic products abroad.

Internationally, Denmark is advancing an "ambitious" plan to double organic farming, while domestic states such as Kentucky are making efforts to boost both organic production and consumption. At the same time, the rest of the world is wondering if the food — which retails at prices significantly higher than conventional food — is worth the price, or is even as nutritious as it claims to be.

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Supporters argue that as more people eat organic, prices will eventually fall to less stratospheric levels.

"As the demand for organics foods rises, the supply has become more plentiful and prices are becoming increasingly competitive," Joe Dickson, quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market, told CNBC in a recent interview.

The upscale grocer has been a pioneer in the organic food industry, but its costly items have led some consumers to coin the nickname "Whole Paycheck."

Whole Paycheck tweet

Whole Foods, which recently came under fire in New York City for inflating its prices, told CNBC that consumers who opt for their generic brands, or shop in season, can save money on their groceries.

Healthy eating, deeper pockets

Two farmers harvest dandelion greens.
Critics question how much better organic really is
An organic produce sign stands over a display in the produce department of a Kroger supermarket in Peoria, Illinois.
Which foods are worth buying organic?

The rise of organic food has come amid a growing national preoccupation with fitness and healthier eating. Yet just how healthy — and how natural — organic foods really are is the subject of growing debate. The Mayo Clinic points to a recent study that examined the last 50 years of data, in which researchers found that organic and conventional food was "not significantly different in their nutrient content."

That said, the lack of clarity hasn't stopped consumers from snapping up more organic items than ever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said recently that sales from organic farms in the U.S. grew at a blistering pace, up 72 percent since 2008. Yet the agency urges consumers "to keep in mind that the term 'organic' does not necessarily mean 'healthier,' " adding that the term organic largely refers to how farmers grow and process food.

The USDA states that "whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may have the biggest impact on taste." Food experts like Jennifer O'Brien, executive director at the Farmers Market Coalition, also argue that fresh food is at least as good as anything marketed as organic.

O'Brien told CNBC in a recent interview that if consumers opt for farmers markets rather than grocery stores, they'll get a bigger bang for their buck. Income levels are also a factor, as middle- and upper-income buyers are generally more able to afford the more expensive products.

"In general, low- to moderate-income consumers that go to farmers markets are getting more than their food. It's very educational and they could learn how to prepare their foods," she said. "The quality will be fresher, whether it's cheaper or more expensive."

Meanwhile, O'Brien also cited state studies that showed certain organic staples could actually be as much as 40 percent cheaper if purchased at a farmers market, where many now cater to lower-income consumers.

Food assistance recipients "should seek out their local markets," she recommended.

Chick-fil-A offering its first organic item
Chick-fil-A offering its first organic item

In an environment of generally higher food price inflation, Whole Foods suggested that consumers try to maximize their dollars with a few cost-saving tips. These include buying from bulk, taking advantage of promotions, coupons and weekly deals, and shopping in the frozen aisle.

Whole Foods' Dickson also said the company's produce team could custom cut products, in order to help consumers save money.

"We offer value tours in many stores to show customers how to find the best deals in every aisle and learn new ways to save. Just ask us," he said.