Is Organic Food Better for You?
Here's how to decide if it's worth the higher price.
What Qualifies as Organic?
Before October 2002, states followed varying rules for
certifying and labeling organic products. But now all organic foods are grown
and processed according to strict national standards set by the U.S. Department
To meet these standards, organic crops must be produced without
conventional pesticides (including herbicides), synthetic fertilizers, sewage
sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organically raised animals must
be given organic feed and kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Organic
farm animals must have access to the outdoors, including pastureland for
If a food has a "USDA organic" label, it contains at
least 95 percent organic ingredients, and a government-approved expert has
inspected the farm where it was produced to make sure the farmer follows USDA
"Before the standards went into effect, you never knew what
you were getting," says Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD, director of nutrition
for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. "My comment to people always used to be,
'Buyer beware,' so I'm thrilled that now we as consumers can be confident that
when we buy something organic, it really does adhere to certain established
Is Organic Food Safer?
"If you're talking about pesticides, the evidence is pretty
conclusive. Your chances of getting pesticide residues are much less with
organic food," says John Reganold, professor of soil science at Washington
State University in Pullman, Wash.
Reganold points to a large-scale study done by the Consumers
Union. Researchers looked at data from more than 94,000 food samples and 20
different crops. They found that organically grown crops consistently had about
one-third as many pesticide residues as the conventionally grown versions.
Organic foods also were far less likely to contain residues of more than one
Even so, the amount of man-made pesticide residues found in
conventional foods is still well below the level that the Environmental
Protection Agency has deemed unsafe. The real issue is whether these small
doses, over years and decades, might add up to an increased health risk down
"Is it going to make a difference? I don't know," says
Reganold. "But it's something to think about, and we're the guinea