Organic food is all the craze these days, but does it REALLY matter what kind of food you buy?


There was a time when organic foods were limited to trendy health food stores, but today you can find them beautifly displayed in traditional supermakets.

The U.S. organic food industry surpassed $10 billion in consumer sales in 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association, which estimates the market has grown 17 percent to 21 percent each year since 1997.

Exactly what can you be assured of getting if a product is marked organic — and what are the pros and cons?

“Organic means the agricultural product from livestock or crop has met certain standards,” said Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates organic standards.

If meat, poultry, eggs or dairy products are labeled organic, they must come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones, according to the USDA. Organic produce is made without using “most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation,” the USDA says.

If a label says “certified organic,” it means the agricultural products have been grown and processed according to USDA’s national organic standards and then certified by one of the USDA-accredited certification organizations.

The certifying agent reviews applications from farmers and processors for certification eligibility, explains the USDA. Then, qualified inspectors perform annual onsite inspections to be sure the growers comply with standards. The standards spring from the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, passed by Congress to establish national standards.

The USDA does not make any claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious.

Ryan Zinn, a spokesman for the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, said organic foods are safer and healthier.

“We can’t say organic foods are totally free of pesticides, because there is some pesticide [residue] in the ground water,” he said. “But there’s really a lot of emerging evidence to suggest that organic foods are higher in nutrients.”

A study published in 2004 in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry compared organically and conventionally grown yellow plums, finding that ascorbic acid, vitamin E and beta-carotene levels were higher in organic plums. But some other nutrients, including quercetin, a bioflavonoid, were higher in conventional plums, the researchers found.

Some pesticides, Zinn said, have been tied to health problems. For instance, methyl bromide has been linked with cancer, he said. “All these pesticides that have been used aren’t going to kill you outright,” he added, “but the cumulative effect is not good.”

But not everyone is convinced that organic automatically means healthier or pesticide-free foods…

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