Organic food was once a staple of only health food stores, but now, taking a trip to even the largest multinational grocers – like Walmart – a typical shopper will find organic and conventional options for many different fruits and vegetables. Total sales of organic products rose an estimated 15 to 20 percent this year, and most vegetarians rely on organic fruits and vegetables to get them through the day. Organic vegetable sales increased 26 percent, milk 25 percent, and beef a whopping 48 percent over last year, but why the increase? Is it due to proven health benefits of buying organic, increased availability and awareness, or another factor?

Strangely, young and low income consumers make the up the largest number of people who purchase organic foods despite the increased cost, according to a study by TABS Group. Further, most people now buy organic food from larger grocers rather than smaller natural food stores. The likelihood of further organic food expansion becomes greater as younger folks who buy organic products continue to age and become higher earners, thus potentially leading to an eventual marginal drop in the cost of those foods.

The word “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process their materials for consumption. Organic farming encourages conservation of soil and water, and don’t use chemicals to control weeds and pests. That in and of itself may be all a person needs to hear to start buying organic – no one wants to eat chemicals. Animals are given organic feed and access to outdoors rather than holding them in cages and pumping them with antibiotics and growth hormones; this may again be all a person needs to hear to buy organic meats as well, and the moral/ethical concerns are also lessened under these circumstances.

Pesticides and the environment are likely the two biggest reasons for increases in organic food purchases. Residue from pesticides can still be found on organic foods though, so the exposure may still be there at a slightly smaller amount; most residues on products do not exceed government safety thresholds, however.

Any product labeled organic must be USDA certified, but strangely, the USDA only requires products to be at least 95 percent organic to use their seal. This means that food additives, processing aids, and fortifying agents can still be used – not even the regulations can be entirely trusted! The question of whether organic foods are more nutritious is a little unclear as well. A recent study examined nutrition content of organic foods from the past 50 years, and concluded that organic and conventional foods are roughly equal in their nutrient content. Obviously, research in this area will continue, and what comes of it may or may not create a further shift in public opinion on spending the extra cash for organic foods.

Considering all costs – health, soil replacement, pollution, and environmental concerns – organic foods may be cheaper to produce, especially if the demand continues to increase at the nearly 20 percent per year the market is doing now. Food in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles from a farm to a refrigerator; at the very least, a person should consider buying food from small farms at local farmer’s markets. The opinion of VegOnline is that it impacts the local economy in a greater way, and having awareness of where your food comes from – and talking to the person who harvested it – is a nice thing to be conscious of.

How do you guys feel about buying organic vs. non-organic foods? Any vegetarians out there who will simply eat any fruit, regardless of the way it was grown, as long as the price is right? Or is there a vast belief that organic foods are simply better for people? Tell us what you think and how you feel on the subject!