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The organic debate
What constitutes organic and what foods are best eaten that way?



After watching the Oscar-nominated "Food, Inc." documentary showing tomatoes blasted with ethylene gas to spur natural ripening for faster sales; chickens living in squalor and never seeing daylight; corn syrup-infused foods; and salmonella scares and e-coli scandals, itís no wonder consumers are concerned about their food.

The best advice is to eat healthily. Yet the question remains whether organic or nonorganic is the answer to a proper diet. "Organic" refers to the way food is grown or animals are raised. Basically, organic farmers donít use chemicals to fertilize or pesticides to control weeds. Instead, they use mulch as a weed deterrent or crop rotations.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, only products can be labeled "100 percent organic" if they are completely organic or made of all organic ingredients. If a tag merely says "organic," that means that the product is at least 95 percent organic.

"Made with organic ingredients" are those products containing at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The official organic seal canít be used on these packages. The USDA also makes sure that foods containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients canít use the organic seal or the word "organic" on their product label. But they can include the organic items in their ingredient list.

"For example, you could see ĎMade with Organic Chocolateí on a chocolate bar meaning the cocoa was organically sourced, but the other 30 percent of the ingredients were not," explains Autumn Faughn, Whole Foods Market marketing director.

"While there is no definitive evidence that organic foods are linked with health benefits, many of our customers tell us they believe itís true. Itís certainly true that organically grown foods are healthier for our environment and it helps to reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals," Faughn says.

Whole Foods Market was the first national certified organic retailer under the USDAís organic standards and has third party auditors and independent organic certifiers visiting each of its stores nationally to verify that the chain is in compliance with the USDA standards, according to Faughn. "Most importantly, our team of buyers and auditors personally visit farms and facilities where our organic products are sourced," she says.

Not only with produce, but meat and dairy product labels are also important. Meat is organic if the animal eats only certified organic food and grazes on land that is pesticide-free. In addition, the animals may not be fed antibiotics, the bovine human growth hormone or other artificial drugs. Chicken eggs are certified organic if the chickens dine only on organic corn mash.

A caveat, however, is that even organic eggs may come from chickens living in substandard, crowded living conditions, or housed in a cage their entire lives. Another egg choice is one that is "free range," where the chicken has access to the outside. Best of all is knowing the farm where your eggs come from.

The government hammer comes down with penalties on anyone "who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with regulations."

Joe and Jodie Nolan of Waukeshaís Good Harvest Market encourage shoppers to study labels. More than 80 percent of the foods at Good Harvest are organic. However, some items are a challenge, especially if gluten-free, because few of these products are certified organic. The store also sells locally grown produce, some of which has not been certified organic.

Joe Nolan, who is on the national board of the Independent Natural Food Retailers, an organization of some 50 retailers that are not cooperatives, says, "Weíre seeing that people are more educated about organic. If an organic or nonorganic item is in a store and the price is about the same, 99 percent of the people will buy the organic." Nolan says prices between the two varieties are narrowing every year. "Itís the law of supply and demand," he says.

For Kathleen McGlone of Slow Pokes in Grafton, just about everything should be organic. She started her cozy, people-friendly store because of her food allergies and is now determined to educate others about what is good, and not so good, about todayís food.

If the consumer wants a list of what should be organically grown or raised, McGlone emphasized starting with dairy products, moving on to meats, and then fruits and vegetables. Only coconuts didnít make her hit list, laughing that they generally grow out of reach of pesticide applicators and can be husked.

McGloneís mission is to "provided local sustainably raised products direct from area farms and provide nutrient-dense natural foods in easily digested products." Part of this process is encouraging educational opportunities that help consumers take better care of themselves. Offering locally produced produce, milk and dairy products, sourced from farmers and outlets she knows, is another safeguard.

Beware the Foods You Eat

Advice varies on what foods purchase should be organic or not. For the serious searcher, the USDA has hundreds of databases, articles and publications, most downloadable, to help. Its publications outline the nutrient profiles for 13,000 foods commonly eaten in the United States. Experts from the United States Agricultural Research Service and other departments can also be contacted directly with questions.

There are certain fruits and vegetables that regularly retain the most pesticides. Be especially aware of produce with a thin skin. The following constitute the "Terrible 10" if not grown organically, according to Jesse Ziff Cool, award-winning author "Your Organic Kitchen" (Rodale Press):

1. Strawberries

2. Bell peppers

3. Spinach

4. Cherries

5. Peaches

6. Foreign-grown cantaloupe

7. Celery

8. Apples

9. Apricots

10. Green beans

Some products are safer because they donít absorb much pesticide or can be peeled before eating. For these reasons, Martha Barksdale of TLC Cooking indicates that it probably isnít necessary to purchase "organic" for the following foods. Yet Whole Foodsí Autumn Faughn warns, "Remember! Pesticides that are applied to your foods canít be washed away. Peeling your fruits and veggies can be beneficial, but with removing the peel youíll strip away valuable nutrients, fiber and antioxidants."

1. Asparagus

2. Avocados

3. Bananas

4. Broccoli

5. Cabbage

6. Kiwi

7. Mango

8. Onions

9. Papaya

10. Pineapple