Jessica Goldbogen Harlan

Ever since my toddler started eating table food, I've fallen prey to the dilemma with which so many modern moms struggle: whether or not to buy organic. Scary headlines about toxins in our food (not to mention the environment) are everywhere I turn, and each time I go grocery shopping -- whether it's at my neighborhood farmer's market or the Wal-Mart across town -- organic offerings beckon. But is organic really better? And can I afford it on my already overstretched grocery budget?

If you've asked yourself these same questions, here are five important insights I’ve learned about going organic:

1. Organic means no questionable chemicals

A lot of hard work goes into food that earns those "certified organic" stickers you see at the supermarket. To earn the "organic" label, farms must pass USDA inspections certifying that their produce is grown without the use of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge fertilizers, bioengineering and other chemical interventions; and that their meat, poultry, eggs and dairy have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones. As for whether this makes organic foods better, the jury's still out. The USDA makes no claim that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventional edibles; however, organic proponents say otherwise. "Study after study has shown that organic foods have higher levels of vitamins, as well as trace minerals that are literally absent in many conventional foods," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit public interest organization that polices organic standards.

2. Organic foods are better for the environment

Because organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, it means those chemicals aren't contaminating our air and water. What's more, organic farmers are required to use techniques like crop rotation and water conservation, which help protect our natural resources.

3. Organic foods may not be as "pretty," but they'll probably taste better

Many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are cultivated to look beautiful and shiny at the supermarket. They're also grown to withstand the long journey from farms to warehouses, then warehouses to supermarkets all across the country. Organic produce, on the other hand, is “not grown for shelf life or transportability," says Cummins, but rather, for flavor. "Taste a conventional tomato and an organic tomato," he says, "and you'll never buy another conventional tomato again."            

4. Organics cost a little more

The biggest disadvantage of organic foods is that they're often more expensive. To keep costs down, Cummins recommends seeking out local growers at farmers' markets or through community-supported agricultural programs; buying organic grains and other goods in bulk at your local natural foods store; and shopping in season (for example, strawberries are cheapest when they're bountiful in the spring, rather than when shipped from warm climates during the winter). Another growing trend is urban buying clubs, where groups of families get together to take advantage of wholesale prices on large quantities of organic goods.

5. Not all conventionally grown produce is suspect

If you're concerned about toxins but can't afford going all-organic (or if organic offerings in your area are limited), take heart. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to protect consumers from health problems attributed to toxic chemicals, has developed a ranked list of 44 fruits and vegetables according to their pesticide levels. "Not everyone has access to organic foods on a daily basis," says EWG spokesperson Jovana Ruzicic. This list is intended to help consumers "make better choices when they're purchasing foods -- what they should buy organic and [what] they can go ahead and buy conventional," she says.

If you're having difficulty finding or affording organics, spend your time and money procuring organic varieties of the EWG's “Dirty Dozen” -- the 12 conventionally grown fruits and vegetables found to have the highest levels of pesticides: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. Then, feel reassured purchasing conventional varieties of the EWG's “Cleanest 12”: onions, avocados, frozen sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and eggplant. Bon Appetit!

Jessica Goldbogen Harlan is an Atlanta-based writer and recipe developer specializing in nutrition and healthy eating. Jessica has written for numerous publications and Web sites including Pilates Style, H2O, Lime, Gaiam and iVillage.

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