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Organics: Are They Worth It?

Organic grapes: $2.99 a pound.
Organic milk: $3.59 a half gallon.
Organic peanut butter: $4.89 a jar.

Which-- if any -- are worth the extra money?

Some experts say the answer's simple: You needn't spend a cent on organics, because all foods and drinks are kept safe by strict government standards. But many doctors and researchers recommend organics because harsh pesticides, artificial hormones, and antibiotics aren't used to produce them. And some people think organic food just tastes better.

More study is needed before it's clear how organics can make families healthier. For now, the most important thing is to feed your kids a variety of whole grains, fresh produce, and other nutritious stuff -- organic or not.

A good rule of thumb for organic foods, from Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization in Washington, DC: Choose organic versions of things your kids eat all the time. More to help you decide whether to buy organics:

Fruits and veggies
Conventional produce  -- fresh or frozen  -- is generally higher in pesticides than any other food group. There's no proof that such residues harm children or fetuses. But since studies suggest that overall exposure to pesticides (through air, water, and food) threatens our health and development, many experts advise lowering your exposure any way you can. Organic produce has few or no strong pesticides, and may contain more nutrients such as vitamin C, flavonoids, and zinc.
Worth buying organic? Yes, to avoid produce that's heaviest in pesticides: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. For more info, see www.foodnews.org.

Fruit juice, applesauce, and dried fruit
Juice and applesauce are much lower in pesticides than the fruits they're made from. But many kids consume so much of both that their exposure levels concern researchers. Ditto for raisins and other dried fruit, which may develop concentrated pesticide residues in the drying process.
Worth buying organic? Only if your child's a heavy drinker of 100 percent fruit juice or really loves applesauce and dried fruit. (Fruit "drinks," "cocktails," "punches," and "ades" are basically sugar water, so organics don't offer any advantage.)

Meat, dairy, and eggs
Meat and dairy are relatively low in pesticides, but they contain hormones and antibiotics (at levels the government says are safe). Bovine growth hormone, given to dairy cows, may well be harmless to us in itself, but it makes cows produce more of a second hormone that some research suggests might raise the risk of certain cancers. Antibiotic residues are so slight that they probably won't affect your family directly, but their massive use on farms helps spawn drug-resistant bacteria that can reach us -- through undercooked burgers, for instance. Those bacteria share their resistance with other bugs, making antibiotics less effective for people. Organics contain neither hormones nor antibiotics.
Organic meats also are required to be free of potentially harmful artificial preservatives like nitrates or nitrites, which are in hot dogs and some deli meats.
Beyond that, there's no clear nutritional bonus to organic meats, dairy, and eggs unless they come from grass-fed cattle or pastured poultry, which may contain more healthy ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. (To find them near you, go to www.eatwild.com.)
Worth buying organic? Yes, if your child eats a lot of nitrate-heavy meats, or you're concerned about the possible risk of hormones and the state of antibiotic resistance.

Baby food
Most baby foods, from purees to juices to teething biscuits, have few or no pesticide residues, synthetic hormones, or antibiotics.
Worth buying organic? No.

Bread, cereal, and pasta
Grains tend to have lower pesticide residues than produce, but organic versions may provide more fiber and nutrients because they are less processed.
Worth buying organic? Less so than other food groups. (And if your child's eating any whole grains -- even nonorganic ones -- that's a coup!)

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