Whether you're shopping for vegetables or cereal, it's important to know what's behind the "organic" label.
Organic food has become big business. Overall sales in the U.S. are seeing double-digit annual growth. Even Wal-Mart and Costco are offering up organic fare.
But for the consumergoing organic can carry a price. You'll pay an average of about 50 percent more for organic produce, for example. Is it worth it?
What is "Organic"?
Organic foods — produced without most conventional pesticides, by farmers who emphasize renewable resources and soil and water conservation — typically contain pesticide residues only one-third as often as conventionally grown foods, according to a 2002 study published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants. And there is 'growing consensus" that even small doses of pesticides and other chemicals are harmful, says the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy organization.
But not all agree that organic foods have proven healthier or more environmentally friendly than conventional foods. At this point, the science is still evolving, says Connie Diekman, M.ED., R.D., director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. Still, she adds, "For some people, knowing that they are using something that has a natural fertilizer makes them more comfortable with their choice, and I think that's what's important."
Know What to Look For
When it comes to produce, if you're looking to maximize your organic dollars and avoid the worst pesticide offenders, the Environmental Working Group ranks 43 fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of pesticides. Peaches score the worst, followed by apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines and strawberries (for the full list and EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, visit www.foodnews.org).
The Environmental Working Group ranks 43 fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of pesticides.
As for the more processed organic foods, such as pastas and cereals, these may contain decreased levels of contaminants, says ConsumerReports.org, but they also offer limited health benefits because the processing reduces nutrients.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has national standards for organic labeling. For single-ingredient foods — such as veggies, fruit and meat — look for the word "organic." For multi-ingredient products, foods labeled as "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients, while those labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organic ingredients.