There may have been a time, years ago, that the word "organic" was a rare sight in the grocery store aisles.
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No longer. From produce to potato chips, consumers today have at their fingertips a host of organic choices for a wide range of foods.
The question remains, however -- are organic choices really any better for you?
The debate surrounding this question has forced both consumers and experts to examine nutritional value, exposure to pesticides, and even the meaning of the word "organic."
"Most consumers don't know what the term 'organic' means, how it differs from certified organic, and it clearly is a perception of better -- marketing at its best," said Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian and director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
"Organic can be a gimmick," said Dr. David Katz, associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "For example, marshmallows could be organic, but so what? Organic Cheese Doodles could be made, but wouldn't be nutritious."
"Sometimes 'organic' is used to make people think a product is wholesome," Katz said.
When consumers spend extra money on organic foods, what they expect to get is more of the things that they want, such as nutrients, and less of the things that they don't, such as pesticides.
As far as nutrition is concerned, though, they could be paying extra for little, if any, additional benefit.
"There is no good evidence that organically grown plants or animals are nutritionally superior to conventionally grown," said Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian with Nutrition Communication Services in Bradley Beach, N.J. "The nutrient composition of any plant is dependent on the soil condition, rainfall, sunlight and seed variety. These factors can vary widely for both organic and conventionally grown."
Nonorganic foods tend to contain higher levels of pesticides, however -- a red flag for those who believe the chemicals pose health risks.
"There is no question that organic fruits and vegetables contain lower levels of pesticides than conventionally grown food," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, professor and chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, N.Y.
"The evidence is strong -- and validated by the National Academy of Sciences -- that pesticide levels in conventionally grown foods can pose a threat to human health, especially to the health of infants and children," Landrigan said.
Recently, the not-for-profit organization Environmental Working Group developed a list of 12 fruits and vegetables deemed to have the highest pesticide levels -- termed the "dirty dozen."
Peaches, apples and sweet bell peppers top the list, which also includes strawberries, spinach and potatoes.
The group's suggestion? Go organic when shopping for these items.
"These products are most likely to carry a significant pesticide load, even after washing," Katz said. "So for each of these 12 items, the difference between the organic and standard version is likely to be meaningful."
Some experts say the greatest health risk from pesticides may be borne by children and infants.