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Should You Pay More for Organic, Non-GMO, or Gluten-Free Foods?

posted Sep 11, 2015, 6:36 AM by
While strolling down the health food aisle at your local grocery store, you’ve probably seen products advertised as organic, non-GMO, or gluten-free. These products often come at a premium, but are they worth it? We’ll explore each of these labels and help you weigh whether you should pay more based on what science has to say about their health benefits.


In order for a product to be labeled organic, it must meet the USDA’s standards for the way it is produced. Whether or not organic fruits, vegetables, and grains are healthier than their conventional counterparts has been hotly debated for years. A 2014 analysis looked at over 300 studies and determined that organic crops are higher in antioxidants and lower in pesticide residues than their conventional counterparts. However, since conventional crops still contain plenty of antioxidants, we don’t know whether these differences are big enough to make a difference in our health. When that study came out, NPR quoted Jeffrey Blumberg, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, who says that eating enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—whether they’re organic or conventional—is the key to getting enough antioxidants for optimal health. We agree, and don’t think you should let the higher price of organic produce keep you from eating as much as you’d like.

Also, be careful about assuming organic packaged foods are healthier. Researchers at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that people tend to think organic cookies, potato chips, and yogurt are lower in calories and more nutritious than their conventional counterparts even if the products are exactly the same.  This is known as the “health halo” effect. Remind yourself that whether or not those cookies or chips are organic, they’re still not health food.  


Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been all over the news lately. Several articles have explored the movement to remove GMOs from our food supply and most have concluded that there is no risk from consuming foods made using genetic modification (read this short article in the Washington Post  and a more in-depth article in Slate). The American Association for the Advancement of Science and respected scientific organizations around the world agree that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”

Despite this, many food companies are marketing their foods as non-GMO in order to increase sales. According to NPR, the health halo effect also applies to GMOs these days: many people think that packaged foods made without GMOs are healthier. It’s important to inform yourself about the evidence and decide whether you’re willing to pay more for non-GMO foods given that the evidence of their benefit is lacking. And again, don’t forget that non-GMO potato chips are still junk food.

Gluten Free

It is critical for people with celiac disease to avoid consuming gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats. Other people may experience symptoms that resolve when they eliminate gluten from their diet, although a recent study found that most people who think they’re sensitive to gluten can tolerate it without any negative effects. For the vast majority of people, avoiding gluten has no health benefit.

Gluten-free products like gluten-free bread, crackers, pasta, and baked goods are often much more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Investing in these products may be worthwhile for people who need to avoid gluten for health reasons and still want to enjoy these foods from time to time, but for others, your food dollars are better invested elsewhere.

If you do need to avoid gluten, most naturally gluten-free foods are much less expensive than gluten-free packaged foods. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, beans, nuts, fish, and lean meats and poultry are all naturally gluten free. Naturally gluten free grains include rice, corn, and quinoa. These whole foods are also generally better for you than gluten-free bread, pasta, cookies, or pretzels.

Whether or not to pay more for organic, non-GMO, or gluten-free foods is a personal decision based on what’s important to you and whether you have a specific health condition like celiac disease. You may decide that it’s not worth paying more for these labels since their health benefits are not clear. Whatever your stance, being aware of the health halo effect can help you avoid wasting money on packaged foods that might not be any more nutritious than the regular version.