By Amy Spindler
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The organic market is growing at a steady pace of nearly 20 percent annually, and that translates into organic alternatives in nearly every grocery aisle -- from snack foods to frozen meals to baked goods. "Everyone wants to be healthy and these foods convey an aura of health," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of "What to Eat." Here, experts compare some of the benefits and drawbacks of going organic.
Are organic products more nutritious?
A few small studies have shown that some organic foods contain higher nutrient levels than conventional ones. For example, a recent study showed that organic ketchup had 57 percent more of the antioxidant lycopene than regular ketchup. But the wholesale claim that organics are more nutritious than conventional is ahead of the science. "More research is needed before it can be stated that organic foods provide more nutritional value," says Connie Diekman, M.Ed., R.D., director of university nutrition at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Organic foods may have other benefits, though. Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at The Organic Center, asserts that some organic products are less processed, which means they may contain fewer chemically adulterated ingredients (think hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives).
Bottom line: "Read labels and look at each product in its own right," Benbrook says. An organic potato chip may contain as many calories and saturated fat grams as a conventional chip. "The price premiums associated with processed organic food are not as great as the premiums charged for organic whole foods," Benbrook says. (CookingLight.com: Labeling in the grocery store )
Are organic products healthier for the environment?
What's best for the environment is hotly debated among experts. "There is no scientifically accepted evidence that organic foods are better for the environment. Organic production allows natural pesticides, which can be toxic to humans and wildlife," says Alan McHughen, Ph.D., professor of botany and plant sciences at the University of California, Riverside. Organic fertilizers may also contain harmful bacteria, such as E. coli. Plus, organic farming yields only 75 to 90 percent of the crop of conventional systems, meaning that more land must be planted in order to have an equal return. (CookingLight.com: Community-supported agriculture programs )
Organic advocates counter that chemicals used in conventional farming spread far beyond the fields where they are applied and have unintended consequences. "Synthetic pesticides have been linked to developmental and neurological problems," Benbrook says. "Organics eliminate synthetic pesticides and the damage they do to farmers, land, and drinking water."
Organic regulations also prohibit the use of genetic modification -- another thorny issue with as-yet unclear implications for the environment.
Bottom line: Focus on foods' benefit to your immediate environmen -- i.e. your body -- first. "A good diet means variety, balance, and moderation, regardless of the farming method that produced the food," McHughen says.