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Organic Food Buying Guide

From sprouted whole-grain sandwich breads to eco-friendly organic onesies, nearly a quarter of American shoppers now buy organic at least once a week, up from 17% in 2000. Since 2005, sales of organic foods rose over 20% with another comparable rise expected this year alone. And yet, for many parents just the mere mention of the word “organic” is capable of inspiring stress-level-elevating, conventionally-grown guilt. You got sticker shock and went with the regular strawberries last week. Can your kid be saved? Those eggs weren’t cage-free? Shame!

But what with all the labels and promises and complicating factors, it can be hard to figure out which way to go. Is it a given that everything your kids ingest has to be certified organic? Do you go with the grass-fed, humane-raised steak or the organic one fed with grain? Does saying a fish is organic actually mean anything? Are all those evil old inorganic foods, even the ones at the local farmer’s market, necessarily BAD? You need a PhD to decipher those labels of honor that now adorn virtually every product, even the ones that can’t possibly be all that good for you. Here’s our guide to the bottom line on going organic. – Allison Pennell

Foods With Benefits

The verdict on whether or not conventionally grown foods are going to kill us all is still up in the air. Despite many studies, scientists have yet to agree definitively that all those scary sounding agricultural chemicals and pesticides found on produce do indeed cause cancer. But, according to the NIH and the Academy of Sciences, ongoing exposure to pesticides renders kids in particular more vulnerable to health problems, with a risk of neuro-developmental damage in particular.

A recent yearlong study of pesticides and children published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that kids eating conventional foods had a family of pesticides in their systems related to nerve agents used in World War II. Okay, that really doesn’t sound good. But here’s the good news, when the same kids switched to organic fruits, veggies and juices, the pesticides in their system disappeared within a day.

And research published last fall in the Journal of Agricultual and Food Chemistry (we read it so you don’t have to) showed that organic produce contains more nutrients and higher levels of vitamins than their conventional counterparts.

Locally Grown vs. Organic

So how do you choose between the organic apple that’s been in a truck for three days and the non-organic one on the farmer’s tree in the next town over? For a growing contingent, going “locavore” is the newest, crunchiest way to eat well. Allen Zimmerman, the produce guru of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, NY, says he wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to eat anything at local farmer’s markets even if it wasn’t organic. “You know the food hasn’t traveled long distances to get to you. It’s seriously fresh. And getting an official organic label is expensive as well as especially difficult on the East Coast so many small, local farms forego the certification but raise food as minimally treated as possible.”

Decoding Badges of Virtue: What do the eco-labels mean?

100% Organic. Completely free of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, bioengineering and chemical fertilizers.

USDA Organic. At least 95% free of all the above scary-sounding stuff.

GM-Free. Free of genetically-modified ingredients.

Made with Organic Ingredients. At least 70% virtuous.

All-Natural. Doesn’t contain synthetic or artificial ingredients (flavors, colors, chemical preservatives). With the exception of USDA-approved meat and poultry, there is no organization to verify this manufacturer’s claim.

Free-range. Poultry that has “access” to the outside, per the USDA. No guarantee of lower salmonella rates or that they have freedom to roam.

Certified Humane. Raised humanely with ample space, shelter, fresh water and feed with no added hormones or antibiotics from birth through slaughter (that part’s not so humane).

Grass-Fed. Pasture-raised and free-roaming rather than fed at high-grain feed lots with higher pesticide and saturated fat rates. Certified organic beef is more often than not grain fed unless specified as grass-fed.

Cage-Free. All that the name implies, a better guarantee of healthy conditions than the label free-range.

Hormone-Free. Mostly relating to dairy products produced without the synthetic hormone (rBGH), linked by some to health problems.

For explanations of every eco-label under the sun, log onto Consumer Report’s greenerchoices.org.

12 Foods to Buy Organic

Apples

Bell Peppers

Celery

Cherries

Grapes (that means raisins and juice too)

Lettuce

Nectarines

Peaches

Pears

Potatoes

Spinach

Strawberries

Plus: eggs, meat, poultry, dairy, baby food, rice.

According to research by the Environmental Working Group, you can reduce pesticide exposure by 90% by eating organic varieties of these 12 fruits and veggies.

12 Foods You Don’t Need to Worry About

Asparagus

Avocado

Bananas

Broccoli

Cabbage

Eggplant

Frozen Sweet Peas

Kiwi

Mango

Onions

Pineapples

Watermelon

Plus: highly processed foods like pasta, cereal, oil, canned fruits and vegetables, bread, as well as fish, which is never certifiably organic.

For a downloadable pocket guide to reducing pesticide exposure you can take along when you shop, log on to organic-center.org.

Rule of Thumb: The thicker the skin, the less likely a food is to have high pesticide levels. Anything with a soft skin or that you eat skin-and-all, go organic. (And keep in mind: even peeling an apple doesn’t mean there aren’t pesticides that have penetrated the flesh.)

Keeping it Cost-Effective

Food coops, buying clubs, farmer’s markets, Trader Joe’s, and CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture programs) have sprung up all over the country and are a good way of buying organic without going broke. If you want to pay less, buy what’s in season, buy local and shop smart. The organic label means nothing when it comes to fish, for instance. And grass-fed beef that’s not necessarily organic can be healthier than one that carries the organic label alone. For coupons, look under “organic” at either of these sites: shopnatureoasis.com or couponmom.com.

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