Once found only in health-food stores, organic foods are now widely available at most grocery stores.

Organic agriculture means that the produce has been farmed in soil that contains no synthetic fertilizers or harmful pesticides, and animal products that are free of antibiotics and hormones.

Organic agriculture works toward preserving natural resources, it supports animal health and welfare, and avoids most synthetic materials. It's not just a philosophy; the USDA regulates the organic industry with strict standards. The soil where crops are grown must be inspected and shown to be free of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and the crops cannot have been genetically modified. Animals are raised on organic farms and besides receiving no antibiotics or growth hormones, are given feed that has been grown organically, and are able to roam around outside. Studies have found that organically raised beef and milk can have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

The results of an online consumer survey by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) suggests that about half of Americans who buy organic food do so because they believe it offers health benefits.

Organic foods can cost up to twice as much as conventional foods, but are they healthier?

"I think people believe these foods are better for them, but we really don't know that they are," stated registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

McManus added "There've been a number of studies examining the macro- and micronutrient content, but whether organically or conventionally grown, the foods are similar for vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates."

While many studies have stated organic food is not necessarily healthier than non-organic in terms of nutritional value, the concerns for those who purchase organic tend to focus on the pesticides that can be ingested along with their fruits and vegetables.

Research shows by eating organic foods, you are minimizing your risk for exposure to environmental toxins and serious health issues found in non-organic meat and produce.

Benji Nagel, co-founder of Mahonia Gardens, an organic farm in Sisters, said, "The number-one reason we buy and grow organic is environmental. Conventional farming is an enormous contributor to ecological degradation. We are also concerned about the health effects of consuming foods tainted by pesticides and herbicides;

but we have more concern for marginalized communities of farm workers who are subjected to heavy doses of chemicals on a daily basis by working in and around agricultural operations."

The organic process helps preserve crop varieties which result in higher soil quality that is safer for the environment. Since organic food production prohibits the use of all synthetic chemicals, it does not pose any threats for water contamination underground.

The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) analysis of tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that nearly 70 percent of samples of conventionally grown produce were contaminated with pesticide residues.

Many people don't realize that pesticide residues are common on conventionally grown produce - even after it is washed or peeled.

The USDA tests found a total of 230 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on the thousands of produce samples analyzed. EWG's analysis of the tests shows that there are definite differences among various types of produce.

When making your grocery-store game plan, sorting out which fruits and vegetables on your list you should buy organic can be a confusing task. However, each year EWG releases a Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce that lists fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residues. Here is an example:

For the 2018 Dirty Dozen list, EWG singled out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. The list included, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers.

EWG's clean 15 list of produce least likely to contain pesticide residues included avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and broccoli. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticide residues.

For people who choose non-organic, look for produce items with thicker skins. They tend to have fewer pesticide residues because the thick skin or peel protects the inner fruit or vegetable. Remove the skin or peel, and you're removing much of the residue.