The A-B-Cs of Organic Foods

For a growing number of Americans, the choice seems clear: buy organic. But for many others, the higher price tag or questionable value of organic foods keep them out of the family's grocery cart.

What are the health and nutritional differences between organic foods and their traditionally grown counterparts? Are organic foods worth the higher price?

"The truth is there is no scientific evidence to prove that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown foods," says Terrie A. Holewinski, R.D., registered dietician, University of Michigan Health System. "They both must meet the same safety and quality standards based on government guidelines and standards."

Yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic farming is one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture in America. The most recent estimate puts retail sales of organic foods at more than $7.8 billion, with nearly half purchased at conventional grocery stores.

So why do some consumers feel so passionate about buying organic? "People who choose organic foods tend to want a more holistic eating pattern, one in which their family's foods aren't exposed to antibiotics, growth hormones and pesticides," says Holewinski. "It's a very personal choice."

Holewinski says organic foods should not be confused with those carrying other labels such as natural. While no legal definition exists for natural, food processors use the term to define products that are minimally processed or have few preservatives.

An organic label refers to the ways in which food is grown, handled and processed. Typically, organic farmers use renewable resources, and soil and water conservation methods. In the past, organic farmers were able to set their own standards for the restriction of fertilizers, pesticides, synthetics, antibiotics, growth hormones, bioengineering and radiation.

Recently, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with the National Organic Standards Board, has set a national standard for how food labeled "organic" must be produced, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. The new USDA Organic seal, used with the term organic, tells consumers that a food — be it fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat or processed products — is at least 95 percent organic.

Freshness and taste can be factors in deciding to buy organic. Fruits and vegetables produced without pesticides and fertilizers tend to ripen faster than conventionally grown produce, so they're handled more carefully and transported more quickly to market. "The shorter time from 'vine to mouth' can sometimes give organic foods a little better taste," says Holewinski.

You will typically pay a higher price for the perceived benefits of organic foods. In addition to special handling and transportation issues, Holewinski says growing foods according to organic standards is more labor intensive, and organic farmers cannot produce quantities large enough to drive costs down.

Facts about new organic food labeling:

There are three ways organic foods will be labeled under the new government guidelines:
-"100% Organic" means that 100 percent of the ingredients in that product are organic;
-"Organic" certifies that the product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients; and
-"Made with organic ingredients" means the product must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
-Only 100% Organic and Organic-certified foods will carry the new USDA seal.

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