How to Buy the Best Organic Foods

The market for organic foods is huge―and growing. Consult our expert guide to find out all you need to know to make the right choices.

Americans spent close to $28 billion in 2008 on organic edibles, up from $1 billion in 1990, according to The Organic Trade Association. And organic foods remain an area of growth even with the rising cost of grocery items and tougher economic times. If you’re fueling these double-digit sales, you likely already have your reasons for buying organic. Even so, recent changes to America’s food buying habits―the rise of the local-food movement, increased awareness about foods’ carbon footprint (the amount of greenhouse gasses released when producing and transporting goods)―may leave you wondering where organic foods fit into a better-for-the-environment equation. If you’re not an organic shopper, perhaps you have questions about whether or not these products are worth their premium price tag. Here you’ll learn the lowdown.

Organic basics

History: The organic movement, which gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, was a reaction to growing awareness about the unintended environmental effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can spread far from the fields where they are applied. Today organic farmers advocate maintaining a sustainable environment by using natural principles to maximize crop and livestock yield instead of turning to artificial and chemical methods.

USDA certification: In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented uniform standards for American organic farmers and manufacturers. Organic foods must be grown or produced without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and, in livestock, without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic foods cannot be genetically modified, irradiated, or cloned. Further guidelines govern specific foods. For instance, organic chickens must be raised with outdoor access.

Growing market: In 1990, the United States had less than 1 million acres of organic farmland. By 2002, that number had doubled, and it doubled again in 2005, the most recent year for which USDA data is available. As organic farming has spread, it has adopted some of the principles that guide conventional farming. Today some organic farms are large-scale operations that manage thousands of acres. As farming has grown, so have market share, crop yields, and distribution channels. Organic-themed grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, have expanded around the country, and even mainstream food purveyors, such as Safeway and Wal-Mart, have developed organic brands. Organic food can now be found in every corner of the grocery store.

Growing complexity: Organic certification does not cover many issues that have emerged as consumers have become more knowledgeable. Today organic food may be locally grown or it may be grown in a foreign country and shipped to the United States, resulting in a larger carbon footprint. Or it may be produced under less-than-ideal conditions for livestock or laborers. In response, some farmers are shifting to what is called “beyond organic” to practice sustainable farming, build a local clientele for foods raised in season, and provide a living wage to workers. Also, some farmers may follow organic principles yet forgo USDA certification. That’s one reason why you sometimes find uncertified organic goods at your local grocery or farmers’ market.

Nutrition and health

Farmers, food producers, and scientists debate whether organically grown and produced fruits, vegetables, meats, and milks are more nutritious than conventional ones.

The Organic Center (TOC), a nonprofit research organization in Foster, Rhode Island, recently issued a review of 97 studies on the subject to draw the conclusion that organic foods, on average, offer a 25 percent higher nutrient level over conventional ones. The premium may be an extra measure of a nutrient like vitamin C or higher levels of compounds like antioxidants, which are produced by plants to act as natural pesticides. The TOC is a pro-organic organization, so it’s not surprising they found a nutritional edge. However, their review is complemented by emerging research from independent scientists. For example, University of California at Davis researchers have found higher levels of nutrients in organic tomatoes, kiwifruit, corn, and strawberries grown side-by-side with conventional versions.

Because this research is preliminary, most -major public health organizations like the American Dietetic Association and the Mayo Clinic hold that an organic label is not an assurance that a food is nutritionally superior. What’s more, organic sweets and snack foods don’t warrant a nutritional halo just because they’re organic. In excess, fat, sugar, and calories can have adverse health effects, whether or not the food that contains them is organic.


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