Will Kaye of Minneapolis is confused about the rush to organics. "What does organic really mean?" he asked while shopping for more conventional foods at Cub Foods. He's leery of the labels and marketing.

Kaye, 43, is especially worried about price. Consumers already sensitive to sticker shock at the grocery store do double-takes when they check prices on organic items. Most are twice the price of conventional items, according to Consumer Reports. Our own price comparison of 17 selections confirmed that. Organic apples, milk, eggs, butter, frozen pizza, cereal and peanut butter were easily double the price of conventional items. Kaye doesn't feel the extra money is worth it.

Despite such wariness, consumer demand for organic and natural foods has grown 15 percent annually for more than 10 years, according to SuperValu, which recently launched the Wild Harvest brand of organic and natural foods at its Cub stores. SuperValu added 150 items, including milk, eggs, meat, produce, pasta, pasta sauce, cereal and juice.

Consumers such as Catherine Dubbe, 38, of Edina embrace the expansion. She's been buying organic almost since her 6-year-old was born. She buys natural and organic cereal, meat, produce, just about anything she can lay her hands on at local co-ops, Trader Joe's, Target, Cub and Rainbow.

While mainstream stores are adding organic items constantly, it can't happen fast enough for Dubbe. "They can always do more," she said. Her motivation is her two children, ages 3 and 6. "I feed them better than I feed myself."

Still, organic food is small potatoes to the entire food market. It comprises only about 2 percent of the U.S. food supply, said Barth Anderson of the Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis, who acknowledges consumers' complaints about high prices. "The price gap between conventional and organic is shrinking, especially on popular items in season." Recently, there has been little difference in price between organic and conventional strawberries, for example.

"Start with a few staples," Anderson recommends. Many consumers start with milk and produce, and later try organic meat, he said.

Despite the higher prices, business at the Wedge is going "gangbusters," according to Anderson. "Natural food stores do well in recessions because people transfer their restaurant budgets to their food budgets. They want to eat better at home," he said.

Why is organic so expensive? It's costly to produce without any genetically modified seedlings or pesticides. Hand weeding is time-consuming and costly. Natural compost is more expensive than chemical or synthetic fertilizers.

But there are ways to save when buying organics. Our price comparison produced some surprising results. We shopped at seven stores: Cub in Edina, Rainbow in Bloomington, Mississippi Market on Randolph in St. Paul, the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, Whole Foods in Minneapolis, Lakewinds Natural Co-op in Minnetonka and Trader Joe's in St. Louis Park.

The price differences weren't dramatic (a 5 percent difference from lowest to highest totals). The Wedge was lowest-priced and Cub was highest-priced. We chose brand names when possible, but the best way to save is still to select private labels when possible. Trader Joe's, which sells mostly its own private labels, was about 25 to 30 percent cheaper than the least expensive branded items.

Most surprising of all, the supermarket derisively called "Whole Paycheck," aka Whole Foods, is nearly as cheap as Trader Joe's if you're only buying Whole Foods' private labels called "365."

Consumers new to organics should know the labeling categories. USDA organic or 100 percent certified organic is the way to go if a consumer wants organic produce. On packaged foods, consumers should look for one of three labels. "100 percent" organic indicates that only organic ingredients are used and is the most meaningful label, according to Consumer Reports. "Organic" means that 95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced (the rest being nonorganic or synthetic). "Made with organic ingredients" includes at least 70 percent of ingredients that are organic.

Does that mean that organic Oreos (no joke) are as healthful as an organic carrot? No, even organic junk food is still junk food.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. His articles are online at www.startribune.com/dollars.