Organic Food Facts: Your Shopping Guide

For some foods, it makes a lot of sense to buy organic. With others, not so much. We'll help you navigate the grocery aisles.

Defining Organic

Once your baby starts solids, you begin to think more about where your food comes from, and how it is produced. But if you're on a limited budget (and who isn't these days?), you can't help but wonder: Is organic food worth the higher price? Unfortunately, there's no clear answer to this question. It comes down to a personal choice about what you think is best for your family. To make this less confusing, we've assembled the facts and made sense of the controversies so you can decide how best to spend your money.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as any food produced without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and most conventional pesticides. Organic farmers use fertilizers that aren't made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge (um, yuck). Furthermore, irradiation (zapping food with radiation to kill bacteria and give it a longer shelf life) and bioengineering (genetically altering plants to make them hardier, among other things) aren't permitted.

Do all of these safeguards make organic food more nutritious? That's up for debate. Until more is known, the main reason to buy organic is to reduce exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and synthetic hormones. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies that protect health, says that pesticides have been linked, for example, to harmful effects on the nervous system and reproductive organs. Babies might be especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides because "they eat more per pound of body weight than adults," says Amy Marlow, R.D., coauthor of Happy Baby: The Organic Guide to Baby's First 24 Months. Plus, toxins (like pesticide residue) are stored in fat, and babies have a higher percentage of body fat than adults.

But not all experts agree that conventional farming practices are risky to kids' (and adults') health. Carl K. Winter, Ph.D., a food toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, says that "the amount of pesticide residue found in produce is not significant enough to make food unsafe." He adds, "The most important thing is to make sure that kids are eating lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, whether they're organic or not." So don't feel guilty if you can't afford organic all the time or if organic isn't available. What to do if you want to buy some organic foods? We asked around to find out which foods are worth the higher price -- and which ones aren't.

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