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12 organic foods that are worth the expense -- and 12 that probably aren't.

Once upon a time, organic food was available only at health food stores, marketed to "tree-hugging" consumers willing to pay extra for "natural," environmentally friendly foods. Today, organic foods are undeniably mainstream. Not only can they be found at most every neighborhood grocer, but even giants like Wal-Mart are getting into the act.

People who buy organic are seeking assurance that food production is gentle to the earth, and/or looking for safer, purer, more natural foods. But are organic foods really worth the added expense?

"If you can afford them, buy them," recommends New York University professor Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH. "It really is a personal choice but how can anyone think substances, such as pesticides, capable of killing insects, can be good for you?"

But American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Keecha Harris, DrPH, says, "There is no evidence that organic foods are superior over traditional foods."

Food does not have to be organic to be safe and environmentally friendly, she says. She recommends focusing on eating food grown close to where you live. She notes that some organic foods come from multinational companies and have been trucked across the country.

"They may be organic, but the ... environmental footprint includes lots of petrochemicals used in transportation, whereas if you buy produce from your local farmers market, it may not be organic but it is farm-fresh and less impactful on the environment," says Harris

One thing the experts agree on: Regardless of whether you choose locally grown, organic, or conventional foods, the important thing is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of such a diet far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure.

What Makes a Food 'Organic'?

Don't confuse terms such as "free-range," hormone free" or "natural" with organic. These food labeling terms are not regulated by law.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created an organic seal. Foods bearing it are required to be grown, harvested, and processed according to national standards that include restrictions on amounts and residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "organic" foods cannot be treated with any synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. They may use pesticides derived from a natural source.

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