Here's a fun fact: The food you put into your mouth could kill you.


This is a main reason why the natural and organic foods have vaulted toward the top of the food industry. Flip on the news today, and chances are you'll see one of the following headlines: "New E. coli outbreak found in fast food lettuce" or "Meat co. recalls 8 million pounds of tainted meat." Appetizing, eh? With all this sketchy food news swirling about, it make perfect sense that concerns about food safety are high and people are putting more faith in natural foods. Still, despite heightened interest in eating "clean," many people still struggle to answer the basic question, "What is organic, exactly?"


The United States Department of Agriculture, which has the stronghold on certifying organic food in America, insists that crops be grown without synthetic pesticides (some natural pesticide use is allowed), artificial fertilizers, irradiation or biotechnology. Organic meat must come from livestock that consumed organic feed, was raised without antibiotics and didn't live in lifelong confinement, though an organic seal doesn't necessarily equal happy, free-range cows.


Furthermore, just because something is grown organically doesn't mean it was grown on a small family farm, grown locally or -- and here's the kicker -- that it's free of E. coli or other contaminates (though in theory, the produce is being monitored more carefully than produce on conventional farms). Organic certification does, however, ensure that the shiny apple on your kitchen counter is free from synthetic pesticides. And in such an uncertain food world, that's a significant start.


Once consumers understand the 101s of organic production, the question that generally follows is, "Do I really need to eat everything organic?" Anyone who has stepped into a Whole Foods or the natural foods section of a supermarket knows that organic produce and meat are, on average, more expensive than their conventional counterparts. And with the economy in shambles, shelling out extra money for an organic guarantee can seem like a low priority. What's a little pesticide residue, anyway?


Additionally, ensuring that every bite eaten outside the home is pesticide-free is a formidable challenge. California pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene recently proved this by living for three years while only eating organic-certified foods. According to a recent New York Times article, Greene was curious whether it was feasible for an average person to live up to the same standards required of organic growers. Although he claims to feel more energetic and healthier after his three-year experiment, he found that many times, especially when he was traveling, there simply wasn't anything organic around to eat.


So what should the average consumer (Greene falls a bit closer to the hardcore, eco-nut category) do if he or she can't afford, or doesn't have, consistent access to organic foods? There are differing opinions on which foods are most important to buy organic, but the general consensus is that it's OK to prioritize in the supermarket aisle.


Greene advocates for stringency on a few particular items such as milk, potatoes, apples and baby food. Other experts add meat and eggs to the list, and when it comes to produce, the Environmental Working Group recently created a shoppers' guide to organic foods, which labels 12 fruits and vegetables "The Dirty Dozen." According to the EWG, consumers should think twice about buying conventionally grown peaches (the worst offender), apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears and spinach. Unlike their heartier brethren -- listed here on Dr. Andrew Weil's list of "11 Foods You Don't Have to Buy Organic" -- these delicate fruits and vegetables require more pesticides to make it to your plate in one piece, and often carry more pesticide residue.


The Dirty Dozen aside, like any other consumer quandary, the answer to the organic question ultimately comes down to common sense and individual choice. The benefits of buying as much organic food as possible are clear, but in reality, other competing values -- including your budget and time -- must come into play. So if you're feeling stressed about your next shopping trip, here are three basic guidelines to follow:


1)   Decide which foods you prioritize most and make a personal pledge to shell out the extra cash for the organic version -- every time.


2)   For foods that don't fall onto that list, try to buy them organic, but be flexible when necessary.


3)   Whenever possible, buy your food at a farmers market where you can ask the farmer about his or her growing practices -- this technique will yield better results than squinting at the sticker on a supermarket plum and trying to divine the same information. (Hint: Some small family farmers aren't officially organic because of the costs involved in getting certified, but still use organic growing methods.)


The most important thing is not to lose too much sleep over the organics issue. E. coli and tainted meat recalls, as well as pesticide use, are likely to continue well into the future, and even buying organic can't completely safeguard you from that unfortunate fact. But by making a few ground rules and sticking to them, you can eat confidently without losing the farm. 

Organic foods: Don't panic, it's (mostly) organic
Do you really need to buy everything organic? Not really. Here's MNN's cheat sheet to help you prioritize your shopping list.