Is organic better for you too?

organic foodThe demand for organic foods — from fruits, pizza, breakfast cereals and cookies to pasta, ketchup, sirloin steaks and baby food — is growing stronger:

  • Sales of organic food have grown about 20 percent during the last five years, with this year's tally expected to top $15 billion, the Organic Trade Association reports.
  • More than one-fourth of Americans are eating more organic products than a year ago, according to a 2004 survey by Whole Foods Market. At the same time, more than half of Americans have tried organic products.

The food industry has responded at breakneck speed. Mainstream retailers led by Safeway, with more than 150 products under its line of organic foods, now carry respectable inventories of organic food. Most grocery stores in the mid-Hudson Valley, as well as specialty stores, carry organic produce, meat and other foods.

Organic grocers have multiplied. Meantime, the biggest food manufacturers have bought up some of the best-known organic brands and started their own lines: Coca-Cola owns Odwalla. General Mills owns Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm. Smuckers bought Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.

Is it better, some wonder

Why the boom? The most obvious consumer motivation is health. Most buy organic foods to protect their bodies from toxins and hormones. These consumers believe certified organic — foods produced without toxic pesticides, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones and irradiation — are better for their health than conventionally produced foods.

In 2003, the federal government made buying organic easier by instituting strict regulations on what can be labeled organic.

The U.S. government, however, allows conventional farmers to use up to 200 synthetic chemicals. The debate continues over whether these pollutants are harmful. Organic advocates argue that hormones and chemicals in conventionally produced food are linked to allergies, cancer, headaches and asthma. Research, however, remains inconclusive.

The American Dietetic Association refutes any health claims, saying the amounts of pollutants allowed by the federal government are far below toxic levels. The ADA recommends organic for pregnant women only.

"There might not be strong science yet behind eating organic, but I think we intuitively know that eating toxic chemicals over a period of time is dangerous," said Janet Little, a San Diego-based nutritionist for Henry's Farmers Market.

An increasing number of parents, however, are unwilling to wait for scientific evidence. Organic food for children, once available only in health food stores, quickly has become a top seller. Sales of organic baby food jumped nearly 18 percent last year, according to ACNielsen, a marketing information company.

Shoppers also turn to organic to help heal the Earth. The use of conventional pesticides can damage the Earth by leaching into the groundwater and local streams, advocates claim.

Nearly five years ago, former corporate executive Jennifer Miranda decided to say no to food on drugs.

She converted to organic.

"My health was not the best," Miranda said. "I was not suffering from a terrible disease, but had weird allergies, broke into hives and was fatigued most the time. I felt it was time to eat clean — no chemicals."

Miranda's hunch, and subsequent commitment to organic, paid off. Today, the owner of Mandala Tearoom, a vegan organic restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., is free of nagging aches and illnesses.

"My story is not all that unusual today," she said. "Lots of people are like me, concerned enough about their health to go organic. When retailers like Wal-Mart sell organic foods, it's safe to say organic has gone from fringe to mainstream."