Despite the rising cost of food, organic food sales continue to thrive. The Organic Trade Association estimates that the sale of organic food in the U.S. rose by nearly 16 percent in 2008. Americans purchased nearly $23 billion worth of organic food last year.

Should your family be eating organic? Tracy Pawelski, a representative of Giant Food Stores, says that naturally grown, organic foods appeal to shoppers who want to protect the environment and support growers using more traditional farming methods.

"Although the USDA makes no claim that organic food is healthier for us, organic farming benefits our planet, which in the long run is healthier for all of us," she said. "Organic farming decreases the chemicals in our food supply, encourages composting and recycling, reduces water and air pollution, and creates healthier environments for both humans and wildlife."

While the popularity of organic foods continues to grow, area experts are quick to point out that science has not yet proven that organics are safer or more nutritious. Consumers who choose to purchase organic foods must decide if the benefits of organics are worth the price premium. Organic foods can cost between 10 and 40 percent more than conventionally-grown products.

"People think that if they see the word organic, then the food is better for them," said Jennifer Gross, a registered dietitian with St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital in Coaldale. "It's still a personal choice. We haven't seen any studies that going organic is better or safer."

The term "organic" is often misunderstood, she added.

"Organic food is free of chemicals, pesticides and growth hormones," she said. What does this mean for the average consumer? Organic foods are raised or grown naturally, which can be important for people who are concerned about pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones found in our diets and the damage that they cause to the planet. However, organic foods do not contain more nutrients or vitamins than non-organic foods.

"We assume that organic just means healthier," she said. "There are no scientific studies that show organics are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food."

USDA certified organics are regulated by the USDA National Organic Program. The "USDA Organic" label means that the grower has followed strict rules regarding the raising of its food and undergoes regular inspections and product testing by the USDA.

A second organic label, "Certified Naturally Grown," means that a grower has followed similar growing standards and is inspected by members of the Organic Trade Association. The OTA is a nonprofit organization that works primarily with smaller farms and businesses.

Gross's primary concern with the organic movement is that some families who cannot afford organic fruits and vegetables may choose to stop eating them entirely.

"People with a budget may not be able to afford organics," she said. Even conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables can be expensive, and organic products may push fresh foods beyond the reach of many consumers. "I would encourage people to consume fruits and vegetables, whether they are organic or not," said Gross. "It's a personal choice."

Shoppers looking for a less expensive source for organically-grown foods may want to purchase foods locally, she added. Many local food stores and farmers' markets offer fresh, locally grown produce that is grown organically although it may not carry the USDA Organic seal. Get to know a local grower or food vendor and find out how their food is grown, she said.

Larger grocery stores are also offering store brand organic foods, such as Giant Food Store's "Nature's Promise."

"Nature's Promise offers our customer a way to try high-quality natural and organic products at a price they can afford," said Pawelski. "This line is available in all stores."

If you are concerned about chemicals but cannot afford organic produce, Gross encourages you to clean and peel produce well before eating. You may lose some of the nutrients in the peel, but "peeling may be as close to organic as you can go if you're on a budget," she said.

Gross noted that if a family must choose between peeling their vegetables or not eating them at all, she would prefer that they peel their produce and lose the nutrients in the skin. Many of the foods with high pesticide levels, including apples and lettuce, can be peeled (or the outer layer can be removed) to reduce your family's exposure to pesticides and chemicals.

"There are no scientific studies showing that pesticides and chemicals cause harm in our food," she said. "It brings up the issue, how safe is our food? It's only recently that people have begun to question the safety of our food system."