A few years ago, the term "organic" applied to anything food producers wanted. Then in 2002 the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in to regulate the meaning. Produce can be called organic when it is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and without bioengineering.
One basic rule: If you eat the skin or leaves of a fruit or vegetable, it's usually better to buy organic, according to Richard Wiles, executive director of Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research group that examines food safety.
"When you buy organic, you'll know you're reducing your potential exposure to synthetic pesticides," Wiles says. "For some produce, we have found that even with washing it's difficult to remove traces of pesticides. Nonorganic strawberries, for example, can be washed 10 or 11 times and still show traces of synthetic pesticides." To sort out which fruits and vegetables are best bought organic, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a list of 43 produce items and ranked them according to pesticide loads, using data from the USDA and FDA.
"With this list we wanted to encourage everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables and to help guide consumers to choices that are least contaminated," Wiles says.
Here are phrases you'll see in stores and what they mean:
When these words appear on a label, only organically produced ingredients were used in the food.
This means at least 95 percent of the product was organically produced. For fruit and vegetables, the word may appear on a small sticker on the fruit or on a sign above the produce display.
Made with Organic Ingredients
Other foods with at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients," but the USDA organic seal cannot be used. Foods with less than 70 percent organic composition cannot display the USDA seal or the term "organic."