Food Labels: How to Read a Food Label (cont.)

The term "organic" has been one you can trust since 2002, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture established strict criteria for products claiming this distinction. Products declared organic must be produced without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, biotechnology, or ionizing radiation. "Organic" animals must be fed organic feed and not be injected with hormones or antibiotics.

But is organic food really better than conventional foods? Not necessarily. It depends on a number of factors, such as growing conditions, how the foods are stored, and which nutrients you're looking for.

Organic foods have the same number of calories, fats, proteins and carbohydrates as their conventional counterparts. Their nutritional composition depends on the soil, climate, growing conditions, and the amount of time it took to get it from farm to table.

Eating a freshly picked piece of produce, organically grown or not, is the ultimate in good nutrition as time has the greatest impact on food quality. Certain fruits and vegetables grown without chemical pesticides may have higher levels of antioxidants. But there is not a striking difference in the nutritional quality of organic products vs. conventionally grown ones. The real question: Is organic produce worth the extra cost? Some people are adamant about having pesticide-free produce. I have seen the ravages of insect infestation and think pesticides are necessary to provide good crop yield. My strategy is to wash all produce carefully and enjoy the bounty of produce at a lower cost.

Keep in mind that the Environmental Protection Agency sets acceptable levels of pesticide residue for produce that are much higher than what is generally found on the foods we buy. The decision is yours.

Originally Published September 15, 2005.
Medically updated September 2006.

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