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Healthy & Safe: Your family's well-being

Is Organic Food Better?: What you need to know to make wise grocery-aisle decisions

If you buy organic foods, are you really getting what you pay for? Increasing numbers of shoppers seem to think so. Over the past seven years, sales of organic foods have risen more than 20 percent annually. Kathy DiMatteo, head of the Organic Trade Association, says 25 percent of shoppers regularly buy at least one organic product.

But trying to sort out the terminology can be a challenge. Some 20 states have no standards to determine what constitutes an organic product. And the 12 states and 33 private agencies that do certify organic foods don't share a uniform set of rules, so the organic label doesn't always mean the same thing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is outlining uniform regulations, which will take into consideration the National Organic Standards Board's warnings against food irradiation, genetically engineered food and food tainted by municipal sewage sludge. The revised standards are due out this fall, but new federal regulations won't be in place before the year 2000. In the meantime, shoppers would do well to question their produce manager about certification standards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its booklet "Pesticides on Food," recommends that consumers seek out the "certified organic" label?the best bet that you're getting what you pay for.

If you do buy organic foods, will your family be better nourished? Nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow, of the National Organic Standards Board, says organic agricultural practices do not result in significant nutritional gains over conventionally grown produce.

But there are indications that organically grown food does contain fewer pesticides.

Consumer Reports studied organic and conventionally grown food, concluding that "organic foods had consistently minimal or nonexistent pesticide residue." This finding resonates with parents who are concerned despite the EPA's assurances that the food supply at large contains only safe levels of pesticide residue. The EPA is revising its policies to reflect the potentially heightened risks for children.

With both organic and conventionally grown food, you can reduce pesticide levels and potentially dangerous bacteria by practicing a few safeguards:

  1. Wash all produce with tap water and scrub with a brush when appropriate.
  2. Discard the outer leaves of vegetables like lettuce and cabbage.
  3. Peel appropriate fruits and vegetables, realizing that some nutrients may be lost.

?Laura J. Kelsey
Freelance writer and substitute teacher

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