If it seems like a lot of people are consuming organic produce and meats all of sudden, you’re right. According to a study by Mintel, a market research company, last year the organic food industry raked in $3.6 billion dollars, a $2.1 billion increase since 2001, and between 2004 and 2006, sales skyrocketed 38 percent. It’s clear: More people want food that is hormone and chemical-free.

But before you sprint to the nearest Whole Foods, note that a 3-pound bag of grapes may ring up at $11—organics can cost up to 50–100 percent more than conventional items. So, why are they better for your health? And is it possible to incorporate organic foods into our diets and still have money left to pay bills? RH chats with The Organic Center’s chief scientist, Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., to get to the bottom of this natural food conundrum.

Terrell: What are the standards for food to be labeled as “organic”?

Benbrook: They must comply with a detailed set of production requirements handed down by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The regulations prohibit the use of a wide range of chemical-based and synthetic inputs both in crop and livestock production.

How do these chemicals and hormones affect the crops and animals?

Imagine a baseball player on steroids. Because the crops are pushed to grow so fast, it puts them under tremendous physiological strain that makes them more vulnerable to insects and diseases. Same thing with animals.

Why are organics better for our health?

First, there is an absence of possibly dangerous pesticide residues and hormones. Secondly, organics have higher levels of nutrients, which have been on the decline in conventional fruits and vegetables. Organics offer to reverse this decline and possibly decrease the risk of illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

But why do they cost so much?

While it is growing, the industry is still small and does not benefit from the same level of investment as the conventional food industry. So it costs more to produce this food. But we estimate that when organics reach 10 percent of retail sales – now it less than 3 percent—we will see a decline in price.

In the meantime, what are some strategies to budget for organic foods?

Shop smart and try buying in bulk if possible. Buy what you eat and drink regularly, like milk. Look for organic foods that are in season and when they are not, opt for an organic juice or frozen and dried fruit instead—they cost less.  If organic beef or pork is too expensive, opt for “grass-fed” meat, which is low in fat and most likely to not be treated with antibiotics or growth promoters.

The good news is that places like Trader Joe’s are expanding throughout the country and places like Safeway, Meijer’s, Costco, Wal-Mart and Kroger have affordable organic lines with worthy items including oatmeal raisin cookies, maple syrup, canned vegetables and olive oil.

And if your neighborhood store still doesn’t carry it?

Ask your grocer to supply it. In order to change our food system, consumers need to demand safer, more nutritious food alternatives.

Get started eating organic! Join The Organic Center’s Mission Organic 2010 and receive a free starter kit.

Read RHAre Organic Foods Worth the Splurge?” to learn about which foods are worth the extra money.