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Choose Wisely in the Organic Food Aisle

Confusion grows as these products become more common

SUNDAY, Dec. 10, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Not long ago, buying organic foods meant stopping at your local food co-op or a trek to the farmers' market.

You can still get organic products there, of course, but increasingly, you can also find them at mainstream markets.

"Half of organic foods sold in the U.S. are now sold by chain groceries," said Mark Kastel, co-founder and co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, in Cornucopia, Wis., a think tank and progressive farm-policy research group. "That shift has been happening the last few years."

And that trend is expected to continue. Wal-Mart Stores, for instance, recently announced it plans to double its sales of organic foods, and with its reputation for cost-cutting, the price gap between organic and conventionally grown foods may narrow, although not all experts agree with that prediction.

Costs of organic products are 25 percent to 100 percent higher than non-organic, said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn. Typically, he said, "people are willing to pay the extra costs."

With the good news about increased availability comes a caveat: Organic foods advocates say it's getting tougher to choose the best organic offerings. They say some companies are cutting corners in the interest of boosting profits, and that consumers must educate themselves on how to read labels or do research on which companies are producing the best products.

One controversy: The fact that organic milk is produced both by family farms that allow the cows to graze outdoors in pastures, and by "factory farms" that confine cows, give them feed rather than allowing them to graze, and milk them several times a day.

"Confined [milk production] is a quicker, easier way to produce," said Will Fantle, research director of the Cornucopia Institute. But Fantle and other organic advocates frown on the process and the end product.

To help consumers, the Cornucopia Institute has posted a scorecard on its Web site, giving dairy producers a "one-to-five-cow" rating, five being best. The scorecard is the result of a one-year research project in which the research team rated 68 organic dairy producers and private-label products. The institute presented their report in April to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board.

Knowing how to read a label can also help you pick the best organic offerings, experts say. If meat, poultry, eggs or dairy products are labeled organic, they must come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones, according to the USDA, which regulates organic standards. And organic produce is grown without using "most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation," according to the USDA.

If a label says "certified organic," that means the product has been grown and processed according to the USDA national standards and then certified by one of the USDA-accredited certification organizations.

Consumers should also be aware that many companies are importing foods from outside the United States to cut costs, Fantle said. He believes domestically-grown product is better.

"Consumers need to look [at the label]," he said, "to see if the food is coming from foreign sources." If that information is not on the label, he said, "develop some sort of comfort level or relationship with the grocery story providing the foods. Ask, 'Where is this coming from?' "

And a final piece of advice: Don't confuse the word "natural" on a label with "organic."

" 'Natural' is not third party-certified, the way 'organic' is," he said. "It's more a marketing tool."

More information

For more on organic foods, head to the USDA.

SOURCES: Ronnie Cummins, spokesman, Organic Consumers Association, Finland, Minn.; Will Fantle, research director, Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wis; Mark Kastel, co-director and co-founder, Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wis.
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