The word organic has traversed in and out of the American lexicon for decades – each time coming out with a seemingly fresh definition. Science geek’s aside, today organic is associated with an environmentally friendly way of producing food that is healthier. The strict definition for organic crops says they must be grown without the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizer or hormones. For animals, it means they must be raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

The organic movement sprouted in the 1950s and grew to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s together with the counterculture movement. The movement spread through farmers’ market and food cooperatives. The movement went beyond food, however, and was meant to foster a sense of community. In recent years, traditionalists have protested the burgeoning organic movement, claiming it has lost its roots and original meaning. Organic foods have permeated the mass market and are often being produced on massive scales. At its core, it is the struggle of big business trying to claim what was once the territory of small, localized business.

The proliferation of organic foods has been a boon to producers, supermarkets and the health food industry. In 1997, organic food and beverage sales totaled $3.75 billion. In 2006, they were up to $16.9 billion, increasing at a rate of just over 20 percent each year, compared to a rate of 2 percent for conventional foods. Once available only at farmers markets, organic foods have sprouted in conventional supermarkets across the world. Even Wal-Mart carries organic produce. Whole Foods, however, has staked its claim around healthy food, much of it organic. Their growth parallels that of the industry – they went from $92 million in sales in 1991 to $5.6 billion in 2006. John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, has found himself at the center of controversy for supporting huge organic farms and abandoning the movement he was once a part of. Mackey counters that Whole Foods attempts to support local producers whenever it can.

Consumers are inundated with foods purportedly claiming to be healthier because they are organic, natural, pesticide-free or free-range. However, this potpourri of food labels only serves to confuse consumers and allow producers to be more ambiguous with potentially unhealthy food. One hundred percent organic means every ingredient is organic. “Organic” means 95 percent of the ingredients are organic. “Made with organic ingredients” means at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic. As for the word “natural,” you are just as likely to find it on ice cream as you are on meat. A product is natural if it does not contain artificial ingredients or added colors and is minimally processed. It’s confusing enough to make a nutritionist’s head spin, much less your average shopper.

The popularization of going green has spurred a careful inquiry into the environmental benefits of organic farming. Very few people will argue organic farming is generally better for the environment than conventional farming. However, detractors argue consumers are better off expending their energy to obtain sustainable foods. These are foods produced locally with techniques that do not harm the environment. Usually sustainable food is organic, but it does not have to be. Proponents of sustainable food allege organic foods often leave a large carbon footprint – i.e. those delicious organic blueberries might not have been grown with pesticides, but the energy it took to ship them from Chile will negate any benefits derived from production.

Environmental benefits aside, most people buy organic foods because they think they are healthier. Why pay such inordinate amounts of money if they aren’t? Popular belief insists conventional foods accumulate the pesticides used in growing them, and then those pesticides are consumed by you. People who eat organic foods thus have fewer pesticides and chemicals in their bodies. Some people believe that pesticides and chemicals are responsible for the degenerative diseases that affect so many Americans.

Preliminary studies indicate that organic produce has more vitamins and antioxidants than conventional produce. Just because a product is organic, however, does not mean it is healthy. Many brands of cookies and ice cream are now organic, but they are still loaded with saturated fat and sugar. Read ingredient labels and don’t just assume it’s healthy because it’s organic.