Nov. 29, 2006 — -- 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.
"Smaller body size increases the proportional exposure to food contaminants," Katz said. "For this reason, organic baby food is a good idea, as is organic food for young children when possible."
"The greatest threat is to fetal brain development," Landrigan said.
He says studies demonstrate that unborn babies whose mothers are exposed to certain pesticides have a higher risk of low birth weight and reduced brain growth, leading to learning problems and conditions similar to autism.
Not everyone believes pesticides pose a risk -- at least not in the levels in which they appear in produce.
Despite concerns over pesticides and other chemicals, experts say there are other dietary issues that have more of an impact on public health than the organic debate.
"In general, we know that the more fruits and vegetables people eat -- organic or not -- the healthier they tend to be," Katz said. "Thus, the adverse health effects of such chemicals are more than offset by the benefits of eating produce."
"Put another way, not eating fruits and vegetables is more toxic than eating fruits and vegetables with some traces of pesticide."
"The big point to be made here is that you are far more likely to be placing your health at risk by avoiding fruits and vegetables just because you can't afford or obtain organic ones than by consuming the conventionally grown versions," said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's department of pediatrics in the Bronx, N.Y.
"The mountain of studies that have extolled the virtues of eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables -- a lower risk of many cancers and heart disease, for example -- were done by looking at conventionally grown foods, not organic."
When it comes to consumers who want to buy organic, Katz says smart shopping is key.
In other words, spend on organic produce only when it is worth the higher price tag.
"Since there are costs and inconveniences involved in shopping organic, knowing where to find the most 'bang for the buck' should be useful to most consumers," Katz said.
Shoppers should also exercise common sense.
"When you see 'organic' on things like potato chips, canned soup and frozen burritos, I think it's time to ask, 'What is the point?'" Flipse said.