Organic food confuses me. On the one hand, I want to eat healthily. At the same time, I need to stay within a budget. 

As a result, only a portion of my groceries can be organic, so I have to be deliberate in my choices. I'm uncomfortable eating meat riddled with antibiotics, so I prioritize organic beef and chicken. But that adds up quickly, leaving me only a few dollars for organic produce. The rest of my fruit and veggies are grown with pesticides, unfortunately.

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I realized recently that I had no idea if that's the right approach -- choosing organic meat over organic produce. Nor did I know if all fruits and vegetables respond to pesticides the same way.

To learn how best to maximize the health benefits of my organic food budget, I contacted Marion Nestle, a professor both in the departments of sociology and of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. 

Her first suggestion: That where cows are concerned, I worry less about the beef and more about the milk. "Milk is a good starter food for organics," she says, "since the effects of pesticides in kids are likely to be worse than in adults, and kids drink proportionally more milk."

Sara Sciammacco, press secretary at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that uses research "to protect public health and the environment," agrees with Nestle on the value of organic milk. "Buy organic dairy to avoid the added hormones and antibiotics."

"After [milk], it's foods where pesticides can't easily be washed off, like strawberries and raspberries," says Nestle. 

The EWG offers a free, downloadable one-pager to assist in navigating the tricky science of buying safer produce. The organization's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce details the "Dirty Dozen" -- the 12 fruits and vegetables that absorb the most pesticides -- as well as the "Clean 15" types of produce that absorb fewer chemicals. 

Given that I can't buy exclusively organic produce, it's very helpful to know that I should prioritize apples, for example, since 98% of non-organic apples have pesticides, while I can relax on the onions, as less than 1% do.

As for meat, there are fewer hard and fast rules. "Organic meat is fed organic feed," Nestle explains, "and the animals are supposed to have access to outdoors" -- as opposed to being confined in tiny pens -- "and the animals are not fed antibiotics or hormones. People have to decide for themselves how much these things matter."

While EWG also recognizes that meat consumption is a personal decision, the organization does suggest ways to maximize the bang for your organic buck. "We would suggest people who have a meat-heavy diet reduce the amount of it they eat," says Sciammacco, "and then choose grass-fed meat when they do buy it. This way, they avoid the antibiotics and added hormones that come with corn-fed livestock, and when you buy less meat overall, you can afford healthier, greener meat."

Another way to reduce the cost of organic food is to buy locally grown and raised, as these foods don't have high transportation costs factored into their prices. To find family farms and farmers markets near you, check out Local Harvest, a nonprofit organization that has a searchable database of locally produced food across the United States.

Buying produce while it's in season also helps to stretch your dollar further. As Sciammacco explains, in-season produce "is more likely to be grown domestically, where there are tighter restrictions on organophosphate pesticide use." If you're like me and have no idea about the growing cycle, which varies by region, check out Sustainable Table, a site that lists seasonal produce by geography.

And don't fall for branding traps such as products labeled "natural." As my colleague Regina Lewis recently reported, "natural," doesn't have an official definition beyond excluding a handful of especially noxious, artificial ingredients. Even items that claim to be "made with organic products" are allowed to contain up to 30% non-organic ingredients. With organics, you should go big or go home: Buy products that have the USDA's organic seal of approval, which are a minimum of 95% organic. Otherwise, don't bother paying more for the misleading packaging.
It's also worth doing your homework on prices. 

Organic produce may cost more than conventional, but venue matters. In May 2010, students from Seattle University's Albers School of Business compared the prices on more than 30 organic items at farmers markets and nearby grocery stores: The average price of the organic items at the farmer's market was anywhere from $0.47 to $0.73 less per pound, and a much wider variety of items were available.

According to the Neighborhood Farmers' Market Alliance, "one student made the comparison especially clear by preparing a salad from spinach, mustard greens, asparagus, apple, carrot, onion, and chives, and showing that the farmers market salad cost 25% less than one from the produce aisle. In addition, the student noted that while 100% of the ingredients of the Farmers Market salad were from Washington, the other stores could only match with between 5% and 17% locally sourced ingredients overall (14%-43% of the salad list)."

Ultimately, however, whether or not you buy organic food is less important than buying healthy food. As Nestle says, "It's way more important to eat vegetables, whether or not they are organic."

Loren Berlin is a columnist at DailyFinance.com. She can be reached at loren.berlin@teamaol.com. You can follow her on Twitter @LorenBerlin, and become a fan on Facebook.

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