The Organic Question

Head to the grocery store these days, and almost everything on your shopping list has an organic equivalent. And not just strawberries and spinach. You can buy organic cereal, soup, chicken, string cheese, and yes, even organic hot dogs. Since 2002, when farmers and manufacturers were expected to fully comply with the organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the availability of organic products has skyrocketed. Once confined to co-ops and out-of-the-way health-food stores, organics are now found on the shelves of 73 percent of U.S. supermarkets, some of which, like Safeway and Giant Foods, have recently launched their own brands of organic breads, cereals, juices, and other foods. Even Wal-Mart sells organic produce. Which is all good news for runners looking for the healthiest meals possible.

Organic foods, including produce, meats, grains, and ingredients used to make various products, must be grown without the use of potentially harmful pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, or growth hormones. "We get healthier food when we eat organic," says Natalie Ledesma, R.D., of the University of California at San Francisco's Comprehensive Cancer Center. "There are studies that suggest organic produce has higher nutrient levels and studies connecting health risks to the hormones and antibiotics" used in conventional animal products. Some nutritionists argue the differences are negligible, but eating an organic diet is greater than the sum of its parts, Ledesma says, because like a savings account, the benefits accumulate over time.

Still, even with the introduction of lower-cost supermarket brands, conventional foods have one irresistibly attractive quality: price. Organic fruits and vegetables typically cost 10 to 30 percent more, and frozen produce, meats, eggs, milk, and processed foods like cereals, soups, and salad dressings run 50 to 100 percent more. So should a runner always shell out the extra cash for the healthier stuff?

Smart Shopping

"There are clear differences among fruits and vegetables in their loads of pesticides," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Some make sense to buy organic; others don't matter as much."

After analyzing more than 100,000 pesticide tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C., released the "Dirty Dozen," a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides (see "Spend Wisely" at left). "By eating the organic versions of the dirty dozen, you can reduce your exposure to contaminants by 90 percent," says EWG spokesperson Lauren Sucher.
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