Organic: What it means on different products
Cosmetics, personal care

Chemicals in personal care products have been linked to both environmental pollution and human health concerns. Of particular concern are phthalates, which have been linked to endocrine disruption. Environmental concerns also are rising about the tiny nanoparticles now being added to cosmetics, sunscreens and other products. Notably, organic personal care products can be labeled "organic" but still contain synthetic ingredients.

The bottom line: Of the 3,000 chemicals used in high volume in personal care products, only half have been put through basic toxicity testing, according to Landrigan.

You may be paying more for "organic" products that aren't actually organic; the USDA regulates organic personal care products only if they're made of agricultural ingredients. Look for the USDA logo rather than the word "organic" on the label.

Processed foods

Many processed foods — pasta, candy, cookies, crackers, baby food — now come in organic versions. Products made from at least 95% organic ingredients can carry the "USDA Organic" seal if the remaining ingredients are approved for use in organic products. Products with at least 70% organic ingredients may label those on the ingredient list.

The bottom line: Processed organic food hasn't been shown to be any more nutritious than processed conventional food.

In conventionally processed products such as baby food, pesticides aren't commonly detected because the processing steps "are quite effective in breaking down trace residues of pesticides," said food toxicologist Carl Winter, director of the Food Safe Program at UC Davis and co-author of the Institute of Food Technologists scientific summary.

"Pesticides are rarely used on crops grown for baby foods since the ultimate appearance of the crop is less important due to the processing before the product is ultimately sold," Winter said.

Some consumers may decide to choose organic because those products are not supposed to contain genetically modified organisms.

Cotton, coffee

Cotton and coffee are two of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world. Pesticide residue has been detected in the cottonseed hull, a secondary crop sold as a food commodity, and conventional coffee production has contributed to the deforestation of the world's rain forests.

The bottom line: Pesticide residue is generally removed during the processing, but the chemicals can have a huge effect on the land, biodiversity and the health of the workers involved. Though buying organic can help preserve environmental health and support farmers who use ecological methods, "it's more important to focus on the circumstances of growers and farms versus the product itself," said food writer Corby Kummer, the author of "The Joy of Coffee."

jdeardorff@tribune.com