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Your Guide to Organic Foods

The demand for organic foods continues to grow in the U.S. If you're like many American consumers, you want foods that are high in nutrition and safe for you and your family. The term organic sounds as though it fits the bill, but is it really superior to nonorganic foods?

Although words like natural and whole can be used freely to advertise foods, the term organic can only be used to describe foods that meet specific standards set by the USDA. In fact, calling food organic without meeting USDA standards can mean a fine of up to $10,000 for each violation.

What does organic mean?

Fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat can all be certified as organic if they meet FDA requirements for growth, handling, and processing.

Here is what organic really means:

  • Compost and manure are used instead of chemical fertilizers.

  • Special insects and birds are used to reduce pests and disease instead of insecticides.

  • Crops are hand-weeded or rotated to reduce weeds instead of using chemical herbicides.

  • Animals are fed only organic products, allowed access to the outdoors, and not given antibiotics or hormones.

In order to be certified organic, 95 percent of a product's ingredients must be organic. Some products, such as eggs, fruits, and vegetables, can claim to be 100 percent organic. Product labels may read "made with organic ingredients" if they are at least 70 percent organic. The terms hormone-free, free-range, and all-natural may be important to you as well, but they are not the same as organic.

The benefits of organic foods

Although easier to find now than in the past, organic foods are still not as readily available and may be more expensive than nonorganic foods. Are the benefits worth the extra cost and effort?

The USDA hasn't stated that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than other foods, but here are some reasons why you might want to consider them: 

  • Fewer pesticides. Although the small amount of pesticide residue found on conventionally grown produce is negligible, use of organic produce lowers the overall exposure to pesticides in our environment. This may be especially important for women who are pregnant or nursing and young children.

  • Lowered antibiotic resistance risk. Some studies suggest that eating meat from animals treated with antibiotics may contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.

  • Better for the environment. Organically grown goods require less energy than conventional agriculture. Organically managed soil also holds more carbon dioxide. These factors may help lower the greenhouse gasses that can cause global warming.

  • More opportunities for growers. Organic food production has allowed small- and medium-sized farms and food producers to compete with big food and agricultural corporations.

Shopping for organic foods

Organic foods used to be hard to find and were usually expensive. That is now changing. Although organic food still makes up only a small percentage of all food sold in the U.S., sales have increased by about 20 percent every year since 1990. 

Organic foods are primarily available in specialty markets, farmers' markets, and natural food chains, but for the past decade, many organic foods have also been sold in supermarkets. In fact, 73 percent of grocery stores now sell some organic foods. (You can identify it by the USDA Organic label.)

If you are concerned about food safety, nutrition, and the environment, organic foods may be well worth the extra investment. Some people also buy organic because they think it simply tastes better. That is a question you will have to decide for yourself. 

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