Understanding organic food

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— My conscience returned last week from her freshman year in college. Although several of the items in our refrigerator and pantry met with my daughter's approval, it was clear that we were going to have to go shopping for some healthier foods.

There was a time when health food stores seem--ed exotic. Now, even supermarkets stock foods labeled "healthy" or "natural." Some------times these words are merely marketing terms, and a consumer must carefully examine the label to determine whether any item truly is a healthy choice.

"Organic," on the other hand, has a specific meaning, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture standards implemented in 2002. Any food labeled organic must be raised on farmland that has been free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides for at least three years. Farm animals must not have been given antibiotics or growth hormones. Crops must not be genetically engineered, irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge.

Health food advocates think food raised according to these standards is safer and more nutritious, tastes better and promotes a healthier environment. Organic foods have considerably higher levels of healthy trace minerals and lower levels of contaminants than conventionally grown foods.

A wide range of organic food is available in Steamboat Springs.

Wendy Irwin of Bamboo Market said there is a steady clientele for organic produce at the store. She has noticed a growing demand for organic dairy products, and she is enthused about a line of newly certified organic vitamins.

Sarah Campbell of Healthy Solutions said organic grapes, bananas, avocados, strawberries, broccoli, lettuce and apples are big sellers.

"Moms especially come for the fresh fruit. Some of them buy a huge bag of organic apples every week," she said.

Natural meats also are gaining popularity. The Epicurean, a bistro-type food store owned by Marco Pauvert, sells chicken and beef from Maverick Ranch in Colorado. The animals are fed a vegetarian diet and are not given growth stimulants, steroids, antibiotics or added hormones.

"It's natural and healthier," Pauvert said. "The animals are treated well, not put in a box."

Organic foods also are free of genetic engineering, which has been in use since 1993, when the Food and Drug Administration approved a genetically engineered growth hormone to be injected into cows to boost milk production.

The FDA does not require that food labels disclose genetically engineered ingredients, which are now found even in baby formulas, soy burgers and tortilla chips. Those who wish to avoid them have only one option: to buy organically grown food.

Another issue involves the use of irradiation to kill insects, bacteria and other pests that might contaminate or cause early spoilage of food. Most scientists think irradiation poses no danger to food and may be less harmful than other methods of sterilization. The FDA has approved irradiation on fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry and spices.

Irradiation reduces vitamin and mineral content by 10 to 15 percent, however, and it can affect the odor, flavor, color and texture of some foods. Again, the organic label certifies that the food has not been irradiated.

Is organic food worth the higher price? That is an individual decision. Campbell sees an increasing number of people who come in to Healthy Solutions because they heard something on the radio or saw something on television.

"They're making a foray, asking what kinds of foods we have," she said. "We also get mothers who are concerned about feeding their children healthy foods."

The Environmental Pro--tection Agency warns that children are at a greater risk for some pesticides. Because their internal organs, metabolic and immune systems have not yet matured they are less protected than adults.

Organic foods can be an important part of an ecologically conscious lifestyle. Irwin points to coffee as a good example.

The traditional method of growing coffee has involved tearing down immense areas of rain forest. Conversely, organic, shade-grown coffee flourishes within a rain forest without damaging the ecosystem.

Organically grown foods are relatively expensive, but they are certified to meet specific standards that are important to an increasing number of consumers -- including my daughter and me.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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