Organic Oreos? Yep. These days, supermarket shelves are also stocked with organic Ragu pasta sauce and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. According to ShopSmart, the shopping magazine published by Consumer Reports, organic foods, including fruits, meats and dairy, may not be on everyone's shopping list, but more and more people are reaching for them anyway.
It's getting so easy to buy what seem to be better-for-the-consumer-and-the-planet versions of favorite products.
Foods certified "organic" are often worth the extra money. They're produced under federal rules that in some cases make them safer, better for the environment and maybe even more nutritious. But there are lots of other labels that are misleading. The "natural" label, for example, gets slapped on all kinds of products.
Even products with labels that are legit, including most organics, aren't always worth buying. The editors of ShopSmart explain that one big reason is that more are coming from places as far away as China. Long-distance shipping gobbles up lots of fuel and generates pollution. And all that food is being produced worlds away from U.S. regulators.
So what labels can be trusted? Before splurging on a carton of "cage-free" eggs, a can of "dolphin-safe" tuna or other products that sound healthful or planet-friendly but may not be, the editors of ShopSmart suggest reading up on what's worth it and what's not when it comes to food labels.
Meat, poultry, eggs and dairy
Worth it: USDA Organic/Organic. This label is the real deal. It certifies that animals are given 100 percent organic feed, which helps consumers avoid toxins such as arsenic in conventional feed, and that the product is friendlier to the environment.
Buyer beware: Free range/Free roaming. While it sounds as if the animal spent its life outdoors, the rules for these labels are weak. For example, if a chicken-coop door was open for five minutes a day, regardless of whether the chickens went outside, poultry could be considered free range.
Coffee and chocolate
Worth it: USDA Organic/Organic. Organic coffee and chocolate are produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers or the strongest pesticides, which prevents pollution and protects farm workers.
Worth it: Fair Trade Certified. This label, which appears on coffee, chocolate, cocoa powder, fruit, rice, sugar and spices, means that a fair price is guaranteed to the farmers.
Might not be Worth it: Shade-grown (coffee). Coffee grown in shade requires fewer pesticides and encourages biodiversity. But the words don't mean much if they're not associated with a certifying organization like the Rainforest Alliance or the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
Might be Worth it: Farm-raised/wild-caught. Those labels, as well as country-of-origin labels, are government regulated. In some cases, one is better than the other, depending on the type of fish. Wild-caught salmon, for example, has fewer contaminants like PCBs than farm-raised. But farm-raised tilapia is a good choice.
Buyer beware: Dolphin safe. Federal law regulates the use of these words and similar language that suggests dolphins are protected. But the law doesn't require certification for all tuna labeled dolphin-safe.
Fruits, vegetables, beverages, pasta, oils and packaged foods
Worth it, usually: USDA Organic/Organic. Organic is the way to go, especially when it comes to produce that tends to have high pesticide residues when grown conventionally. But packaged foods have different organic labels. "100% Organic" means only organic ingredients are allowed and is the most meaningful label. "Organic" means at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced; the rest can be nonorganic or synthetic ingredients. "Made with Organic Ingredients" means at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. But remember that junk food made with organic ingredients is still junk food!
For more on how to avoid food labeling rip-offs, check out the eco-labels center at www.greenerchoices.org.