Organics or…not?

Marketplace Staff Jan 5, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Item one on my New Year’s resolution checklist — eat healthier. And I’m not alone, it’s a wish for a whole lot of Americans. And some companies are helping to make it a reality. Starbucks announced this week it’s cutting trans fats out of its baked goods. But what about when you go grocery shopping, does it make sense to leave the processed foods behind for organic alternatives. We ask Marketplace’s Alisa Roth to find out.

ALISA ROTH: My baby started eating solid food a few week’s ago. The pediatrician had lots of instructions like what to feed him and how much. But the one thing she didn’t address is whether I really need to shell out the extra cash so my budding foodie (PH) can eat organic, especially since only about half seems to actually end up in his mouth. Mike Hamm studies agriculture at Michigan State University.

MIKE HAMM: The data is not incredibly strong to say that there is a great increase in the health properties of those products.

But before you run out and stock up on cheaper conventional products, listen to what Charles Benbrook has to say. He’s chief scientist at The Organic Center, a nonprofit that promotes the wider use of organics. He uses government data on pesticide residues to calculate the risks.

CHARLES BENBROOK: The evidence is fairly strong that exposures to pesticides in food are a contributing factor in a number of developmental abnormalities.

He says that means vulnerable populations like infants and children should eat organic whenever possible, especially foods that kids eat in big quantities.

BENBROOK: If a kid, for example, really likes apple juice a lot I would definitely recommend a mom seeking out organic apple juice as opposed to a regional, conventional brand.

The market for organic food grew more than 16% in 2005. Americans spent almost 14 billion dollars in organic foodstuffs and nearly 750 million on organic nonfood items. But it can be tricky to figure out what’s what in this supermarket. The government and the food industry have been wrangling over the labeling of organics for years. And it shows. The agriculture department alone has three different labels for organic food. Throw in a few of those catchall terms like natural and free range and you might decide to give up and order a pizza. I decided I needed extra help so I went food shopping with Consumer’s Union scientist Urvashi Rangan.

URVASHI RANGAN: Potassium chloride, I guess maybe that’s natural – it’s hard to say sometimes with all of these.

We’re looking at nearly identical boxes of crackers. One is marked organic, the other all natural. Rangan says the more processed the food is, the less it’s organicness matters. When we make flour from wheat, say, the outer parts of the plant are stripped off. That means most pesticide residue probably goes with it. So buying organic bread may not be so crucial.

RANGAN: I bought a pepperoni pizza once that said, recombinant bovine growth hormone free, which I thought was hilarious. Hard to make all those connections when you’re seeing that claim on a box of pizza.

Fresh fruits and vegetables carry more risk since you’re getting them in their basic form. Even there though the risk can vary widely. It’s hard to get pesticide residues off things like peaches, berries and leafy green vegetables. So there, organic is probably worth it. But things with thick peels that you don’t eat are actually pretty safe in their conventional forms. Think watermelon, oranges, bananas, even something as simple as eggs, milk or chicken can be pretty tricky. The worry here is the antibiotic use, growth hormones and for some of us, humane treatment of the animals. Companies would like us to believe that their animals live in bucolic wonderlands. Rangan says the reality is often far from that. Her solution — read the labels very carefully. Still, labels can be misleading. Rangan says there’s no official designation for organic cleaning products.

RANGAN: So if you have a particular countertop cleaner that’s lavender-based, the lavender was possibly grown organically but the rest of what’s in that cleaning product may not be.

One clue? Makers of cleaning products aren’t required to list their ingredients. So look for packages that do list them and then decide from there. As for my baby, I decided to go ahead and spring for the organic food. Now if somebody could just tell me how to get carrot stains out of my favorite shirt.

In New York, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace Money.

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