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Your Guide to Going Organic

"Organic" is a hot topic in the food world, as in other areas of life, and many products bear the wholesome-sounding label. But it's not as simple as it sounds.

Many questions about organics, including its purported benefits, remain unanswered.

Here are some of the basics, a guide to questions you should ask and a sampling of opinions to help you make informed choices as you shop for food.

What is 'organic'? There's now a government definition. In 2002, the Department of Agriculture put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether grown in the U.S. or imported from other countries.

The USDA says: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."

Before a product can be labeled "organic," a government inspector must certify the farm where the food is produced. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

The USDA doesn't claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food — just that it's different in the way it's grown, handled and processed. Anything with the USDA Organic seal must be at least 95 percent organic.

Things to know about the label:

• The use of the seal is voluntary. Some producers choose not to apply for certification, although they might qualify.

• People who misuse the label can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.

• The USDA points out that the words natural and organic are not interchangeable.

"Other truthful claims, such as free-range, hormone-free, and natural, can still appear on food labels," the USDA says.

"However, don't confuse these terms with 'organic.' Only food labeled 'organic' has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards."

• The USDA has not yet developed organic certification standards for seafood.

More detailed information on the USDA organic standards is available on its Web site at: http://www.ams.

You can also call the National Organic Program at 1-202-720-3252 or write USDA-AMS-TM-NOP, Room 4008 S. Bldg., Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence, SW, Washington, D.C. 20250.

Organic vs. conventional: How do you know when you should buy organic foods and when it's OK to buy conventional? Opinions vary widely.

Using organic foods has health benefits for us personally and for the environment as a whole, says Paul McRandle, senior research editor for The Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, a nonprofit clearing house on eco-friendly consumer information.

"A big selling point for organics is that, yes, you should eat your seven to nine servings of vegetables a day — but preferably organic vegetables, meaning at the least you are not ingesting poisons and toxic substances whose accumulation can do you harm," he said.

Opposing views on pesticides in general, from organizations including the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think-tank, maintain that approved amounts of chemicals ingested are too insignificant to be harmful.

Advocates of buying local and supporting local producers make this point: Organic produce imported from far-off places may not be exactly friendly to the environment.

In a special report on organics in EatingWell magazine, writer Peter Jaret comments on such imported items he saw in his market: "Fresh from the garden they weren't. And whatever pesticides were spared in growing them were more than made up for by the petrochemicals used to get them here." By buying locally, you can get close to the producers, talk to the people who sell and ask how their foods are produced, even what pesticides they use, if any.

Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables can contain the residues of as many as 51 different pesticides, while organic has two-thirds less, says The Green Guide.

If you want to reduce your family's exposures, according to, choose the organic versions of these most contaminated "Top 10" foods:peaches, apples, strawberries, nectarines, pears, spinach, bell peppers, celery, potatoes and hot peppers.

The cost: Organic food is more and more widely available, but it can cost more.

Whether a food is grown locally or by a small farmer can also affect prices.

A recent tour of New York's Union Square Greenmarket, the city's largest farmers market, and a spot check of nearby chains such as Whole Foods showed a range of prices.

In the Greenmarket, at the stand of Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent, N.Y., which describes itself as a biodynamic farm using synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, or hormones:

Red, purple, orange and green bell peppers, $2.50 a pound.

At Whole Foods:

Organic peppers (yellow, orange, red), $6.98 a pound, grown in California.

Conventionally grown peppers (red, yellow, orange), $4.98 a pound, from Holland.

Conventionally grown peppers (green), $1.98 a pound, grown in New Jersey.

The big picture: In her latest book, "What To Eat" (North Point Press, 2006, $30), Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University, deals clearly with points made for and against organic foods, and indicates the political bias in these differing opinions.

"It would be nice to know more about the comparative safety of organic and conventional produce, but research on this question is minimal," she writes. And Nestle also points out, "Studies of comparative nutrition are hard to do, expensive and difficult to interpret."

But she quotes Joan Gussow, former head of the nutrition department at Columbia University, who asks why we shouldn't hope people will choose organic food on grounds more reliable than whether they contain a little more carotene or zinc.

"Isn't the most important story that organic production conserves natural resources, solves rather than creates environmental problems, and reduces the pollution of air, water, soil . . . and food?" Gussow says.

Nestle applauds the way Gussow keeps attention on important environmental issues.

"My guess is that researchers will eventually be able to prove organic foods marginally more nutritious than those grown conventionally, and that such findings will make it easier to sell organic foods to a much larger number of people," Nestle writes.

"In the meantime, there are loads of other good reasons to buy organics, and I do." •