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Should You Buy Organic?

Some parents wouldn't dream of serving anything but organic food to their families, while others consider it strictly for the granola-and-berries set. Who's right? Turns out, there's no clear-cut answer. What's more, many consumers still have misconceptions about what organic food really is. We tracked down answers to your biggest questions so you can decide for yourself.

Q: What does the term organic mean?

A: According to the National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farmers use renewable resources and growing methods that conserve soil and water. Crops are produced without conventional chemical pesticides and without fertilizers made with synthetic materials or sewage. Animals raised on organic farms for meat, eggs, or dairy products eat organic feed, have access to pasture, and are free of antibiotics and growth hormones. Organic regulations also prohibit bioengineering or irradiation in processing.

Q: How do I know if a food is organic?

A: If a product is labeled organic, you can be sure it is, says USDA spokesperson Joan Shaffer. By law, companies can't use that label unless their operation has been certified organic by a USDA-approved agent. You can also look for the USDA Organic seal, which tells you that the product is at least 95 percent organic and that the manufacturer has met national organic standards for processing and handling.

Q: Why are organic foods so much more expensive?

A: That higher price tag (especially for meat, eggs, and dairy products) is because organics cost more to produce, from start to finish. For one thing, farmers have to follow the strict certification regulations, which takes extra time and labor. Crop yields are also lower because farmers can't use conventional chemicals that boost production. Raising animals is also pricier: Organic feed is more expensive, and giving animals room to roam in pastures ups overall farming costs as well.

Q: Are organic foods better for my children's health?

A: Opinion is split. Though the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration consider irradiation and the use of growth hormones and antibiotics safe, some parents still choose to avoid them by buying organic meat, eggs, and milk. Pesticides are another major issue in the organic debate. Many scientists, including Carl Winter, Ph.D., director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California at Davis, maintain that the typical levels of conventional pesticides in the diet aren't a health concern, while proponents of organics argue that the fewer pesticides, the better -- especially for children, who may be more vulnerable to toxins. From there it gets trickier, because while organic farmers don't use conventional pesticides, they may still use natural versions, which are not completely safe either.

However, if you'd like to reduce your child's exposure to conventional pesticides, organic produce may be for you. "Kids get a higher percentage of their calories from fruits than adults do, so buying organic can make a difference," says Julie Upton, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. And organic fruits and vegetables have been shown to contain less pesticide residue than regular produce. You can peel conventional produce to get rid of some residues, but that also removes valuable nutrients and fiber. In any case, the same precautions apply to all produce: Rinse thoroughly before eating to wash away any pesticides or germs. No matter which you choose, most experts agree: The health benefits of eating plenty of produce -- organic or otherwise -- outweigh the potential risks.

Q: Is organic food more nutritious?

A: There's no widely accepted scientific evidence that organics are nutritionally superior. However, one recent study has shown that organic fruits and vegetables have more phytochemicals--naturally occurring substances that seem to help humans fight disease. One possible reason: Plants untreated with pesticides produce more of these substances to ward off bugs and disease naturally. But right now, experts don't know what levels of phytochemicals are beneficial, so it's unclear whether the extra levels make a difference to your child's health. On the flip side, though, just as pesticide-free plants churn out health-boosting phytochemicals, plants undergoing stress from fighting bugs produce natural toxins--and these are also potentially harmful to humans in large amounts.

Q: I shop at farmers' markets. Is that produce considered organic?

A: Not necessarily. A farm must be certified organic under USDA regulations to sell organic produce. So unless the label says so, chances are, it's just fresh-picked--not organic.

Q: Is natural the same thing as organic?

A: Not at all. The term organic on a food label guarantees a specific method of growing and processing food, while the word natural simply means free of anything synthetic, such as artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. It doesn't promise anything about how the food was grown or processed.

Q: What about packaged organic products like cookies or pasta?

A: When it comes to packaged products, an organic label doesn't automatically make it good for you; just look at the rows of organic potato chips at health-food markets. As for cookies and pastas, grains don't typically have high levels of pesticide residue anyway, so the organic label is probably irrelevant to safety. And, as always, you still need to read labels, since processed organic food can be loaded with fat, calories, sugar, and salt.

Food Hero: Karen Washington
Food Hero: Karen Washington

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the April 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.