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Organic for Baby?

Considering that organic foods have grown into a $6-billion-a-year business, it's no surprise that "all-natural" baby foods are popping up on supermarket shelves.

The exact rules for what gets to be called "organic" currently vary across the country; a single federal standard is expected by the end of the year. Generally, though, certified organic products are grown without the use of potentially toxic pesticides and fertilizers or synthetic hormones or antibiotics, according to the Organic Trade Association.

But does this mean that organic baby foods are really better? Some experts think so. Although the pesticide levels in food are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some consumers are concerned that the acceptable level is too high. Babies' small size and immature immune systems may put them more at risk for environmental toxins, says Harvey Karp, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, who believes that parents should feed their babies only organic food.

Many other experts disagree, however. Susan Baker, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Nutrition, says that the amount of pesticides actually found in processed baby foods is too low to be a threat. In addition, the EPA takes into account individuals who may be more sensitive, including pregnant women and infants. And in recent years, the EPA's standards for nonorganic foods have become stricter with the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. "The food in America is very safe," says Dr. Baker.

The bottom line: There is no solid evidence that conventional baby food poses any risk. But even if organic food isn't necessarily any better for your baby, you may want to give it a try  -- if only for a change of pace. Popular brands include Earth's Best and Gerber Tender Harvest. And despite organic baby food's reputation as a pricey indulgence, its leap from health food store to national supermarket chain has helped make it almost as affordable as the regular stuff. Ultimately, the decision is up to you (and that little guy who does the taste test).

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