In the grocery store there are many choices of food products each trying to claim that they are the healthiest and the most nutritious product for the cost. Many times the cost is greater because of these claims. Parents are eager to buy the best products for their growing child and it is helpful to know what these claims mean. The American Academy of Pediatrics (healthychildren.org) has information about the following terms: organic, natural and health foods.

1. Organic foods are grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. Organic meat, eggs and dairy products are obtained from animals that are fed natural feed and not given antibiotics or hormones.

2. Natural foods are free of synthetic or artificial ingredients or additives.

3. Health foods is a general term that may be applied to natural or organic foods or to regular foods that have undergone less processing than usual such as stone-ground whole-grain flours.

Although some have claimed that organic foods have a higher concentration of some nutrients, the evidence is mixed. The nutritional content of foods also varies greatly according to when the food was harvested and how it has been stored or processed. Unless they are fresher, there is no evidence that organic, natural or health foods taste better than regular foods. Taste is determined by plant genetics rather than by whether the crop was organically or conventionally grown. Harvesting and handling also affect taste. A peach or tomato that is picked when it is too green will never develop the full taste of fruit that is allowed to ripen on the tree or the vine.

The type of fertilizer may not affect the taste or nutrition — but does affect the environment. Many people prefer to pay premium prices for organic foods because their productions do not cause environmental damage from pesticides and herbicides. Also, the fact that composted fertilizers help restore the soil and are not as damaging to the environment as artificial fertilizers. However, by stating organic it does not protect the food from being contaminated from the field to market.

Your local markets carry a wide variety of nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables. Harmful bacteria may be in the soil or water where the produce grows or during storage may be contaminated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that you select fresh, undamaged, refrigerated produce. Bag fresh produce separately from raw meat, poultry or seafood. Once home, keep your products refrigerated and continue separation. Wash just before preparing or eating with running water not with soap, detergent or commercial wash. Also clean inedible skins such as bananas or melons with running water. Use cleaned cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops when preparing all food that is not to be cooked.

With running water, refrigeration (40 degrees or lower) and prevention of cross contamination, your family should enjoy healthy eating. Bon appétit.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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