Once confined to the realm of cooperatives and communes, organic food is becoming more popular among mainstream consumers.
While still a small 2.5 percent of total food sales in the United States, organic sales have grown 20 percent per year in the past decade, topping an estimated $17 billion in 2007. Sales are projected to double by 2009.
Two-thirds of Americans bought some sort of organic food and beverages in 2005, up from half the year before.
"It's not a little cult of people all into health, exercise and eating organically because it's the natural way," said Nikki Holcomb, dining and catering manager of Ki's restaurant in Cardiff, which emphasizes organic and natural ingredients.
"As people move more and more towards the organic side of the world they tend to be less and less inclined to go back to the conventional side," said Jimbo Someck, owner of Jimbo's… Naturally! grocery stores. "People start to feel better about themselves physically, mentally, emotionally."
San Diego County has long been a haven for healthy food stores and boasts the highest number of certified organic farmers in the state with more than 300. Demand for organics here has increased substantially as exemplified by Jimbo's growth, which began with a small North Park store in 1984 and now has four successful stores throughout the county, including Carmel Valley.
Here are some of the basics about organics and local experts' insights on beginning to shop organically.
Organic food is produced without using most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering techniques, chemical fertilizers or sewer sludge.
Organic advocates are wary of chemicals used in commercial farming.
"It makes sense, what you put into the food is going to become a part of that food," Someck said. "Why even expose yourself to the potential of chemicals in food when you don't have to?"
Avoiding chemicals benefits the environment as well, organic advocates said. Organic farming is more natural and sustainable; enhancing biodiversity and soil fertility through various methods such as crop rotation, cover crops and natural inputs.
Some studies have shown there are a higher number of nutrients in organic food compared with commercially grown food, such as Vitamin C and antioxidants.
Whether these are significant amounts remains to be seen, but perhaps is part of the reason why so many said organic food tastes better.
"The fruits are sweeter, the veggies have more flavor, the lettuce is crisper," Holcomb said.
Some potential consumers are put off by the price premium of organics.
Someck recalled an elderly gentleman who carefully calculated his purchases each trip to the original Jimbo's. After a year, the man found he did spend more on organic groceries but told Someck he felt much better and saved considerably more on doctor's bills.
"What price do you put on one's health?" Someck said. "And if you extend beyond the health of the individual, to the health of the environment, the value it might have for future generations… 10, 15 percent more than conventional, to me, is worth the price."
Nancy Brown is a Solana Beach dietician and as owner of Fast and Healthy Nutrition works on nutrition information and labels for food products. She said prices of organics are gradually coming down, and store brand organics are very competitive.
Brown said she buys store brands whenever possible, knowing they are identical to other organic labels.
"The products you are seeing in Trader Joe's are the exact same you are seeing in Whole Foods without the fancy packaging," Brown said.
For beginning organic shoppers wishing to progress slowly, prioritize anything that's fresh to avoid preservatives, hormones and pesticides, Someck and Brown said. That means produce, meats and dairy before grains, bakery and packaged items.
Within organic produce, start with the items that when commercially-grown produce are more heavily sprayed with pesticides, including peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, lettuce, pears and spinach, according to the non-profit Environmental Working Group.
Making sure all liquids and concentrates are organic is critical for Brown, including dried fruit, juices and coffee. Intensifying any amount of chemical residue or running water through ground non-organic coffee beans sprayed with pesticides is something she wants to avoid, Brown said.
Holcomb's rule of thumb is to buy anything she eats everyday organic, like salad greens or bananas.
When it comes to the rest of the grocery store, Brown, Someck and Holcomb said they prefer natural and organic ingredients to hydrogenated oils artificial colors, sweeteners and preservatives. However, it is important to understand labels and the difference between organic and natural, Brown said.
"Organic" is highly regulated and must be verified by a third party certifier. Something labeled "100 percent organic" includes all organic ingredients. Something labeled "Organic" means at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, all agricultural ingredients must be organic, but other non-organic ingredients are allowed, like vitamins and baking powder.
The Food and Drug Administration on the other hand, have not officially defined "Natural," and so there are no standards behind its use.
"I warn customers to not be confused with the term natural because it does not necessarily mean better and it does not mean organic," Brown said.