Is your "green" grocery really selling the healthy life — or just a lot of expensive grapes?

1. "Organic isn't what you think it is . . ."
What comes to mind when you think "organic"? Despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture laid down standards in 2002 for what does and does not constitute organic food, consumers still seem to be confused. In a 2003 survey sponsored by Austin, Tex.-based Whole Foods Market, 60 percent of respondents said they believe organics contain more nutrients than conventional food. In fact, evidence for extra nutrients in organics is debatable.

So what does organic mean? Produce is grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides, genetic modification, irradiation, or fertilizer made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Organic meat comes from livestock that has never been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and has been given organic feed free of animal byproducts.

Though the FDA monitors conventional produce to ensure that pesticide levels aren't toxic, it's the cumulative effect of small amounts that concerns some people. In 2003 the Environmental Working Group compiled a list of "dirty dozen" produce that retains the most pesticide residue according to FDA and USDA tests. You can see the list, which includes apples, strawberries and potatoes, at www.foodnews.org.

2. ". . . and the definition keeps changing anyway."
No sooner did the federal organic standards get implemented than food producers began to lobby Congress for changes weakening the regulation. In one case, after a Georgia chicken producer reportedly balked at the standards, a rider was slipped into the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill allowing chickens raised on conventional feed to be labeled organic if organic feed was more than twice the cost of conventional feed. Organic activists and trade groups objected, and the rider was repealed in April 2003. At the same time, Alaska's two senators sponsored an amendment to a wartime bill, opening the door for wild-caught seafood to be labeled "organic" — a boon for Alaska's wild salmon fishery.

The problem? Organic standards are meant to deal with farming, and organic advocates argue it's impossible to know how wild seafood has been fed or maintained. Indeed, wild shark and swordfish can contain such high mercury levels that young children and pregnant women are advised not to eat them. For more details on wild seafood safety, check out the EPA's advisory at www.epa.gov/ost/fish, or visit the Seafood Selector at www.environmentaldefense.org.

3. "Some products aren't quite as 'eco' as you think."
As the demand for organic products has grown, a number of other eco-labels that imply health or environmental purity have also proliferated. Their true meanings range from the application of standards stricter than the USDA's organic rule to kinda-sorta organic to anything but organic — adding another layer of confusion when you're shopping.

"Biodynamic," a label created by a consortium of farmers, shares many of the same principles as organic but has even stricter rules. "Veri-Pure," a label created by the makers of Kashi cereals, testifies to a virtual lack of 100-plus chemicals but not necessarily whether ingredients were grown without pesticides; a spokesperson says it was adopted in the 1980s, when the company was having a hard time ensuring 100 percent organic grains. And coming soon to many stores is the "Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly" label, sponsored by the Center for Global Food Issues, a think tank that supports modern high-yield agriculture. To earn the label, farmers must choose from certain practices; for instance, they can give cows hormones to increase milk production, which is forbidden under organic rules. To find out what's behind any confusing label, head to www.eco-labels.org.

4. "Health food doesn't have to eat up your entire paycheck."
Organic and health-oriented foods generally will cost you more than conventional foods. Some of the biggest differentials exist in meat and milk: Organic milk typically costs 50 to 100 percent more than conventional milk, while organic meat can cost two or even three times more, according to an Organic Trade Association spokesperson.

But there are plenty of ways to minimize costs in health food stores. Buy from that old hippie standby, the bulk bin, where you can save on staples such as cereal, pasta and flour. Or consider joining a local co-op, where you exchange a little volunteer time for big savings, or a community-supported agriculture program, in which you pay a farmer up front for an entire season's worth of produce. To find a CSA program near you, go to www.csacenter. org. James Brundage, an administrative assistant at a PR firm, joined his local co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I used to buy most of my food at Whole Foods," he says. "Now I buy it all at the co-op, and prices are about 30 to 50 percent cheaper." As for the co-op's requirement that members put in about three hours of work per month at the store, Brundage finds it "only mildly annoying. Everyone is so friendly, the time passes quickly."

5. "Our supplements are a mystery wrapped in an enigma."
Dietary supplements are a booming business in this country, with sales of $19 billion last year. In the fallout surrounding the Food and Drug Administration's recent ban of ephedra, many consumers have already learned that manufacturers don't have to submit evidence of effectiveness, since they don't make overt claims of curing or preventing a particular disease. Indeed, there are few controls to make sure that supplements even contain what they claim to. "Assume that nothing is guaranteed (about content) or the appropriate dosage advice," says Ron Buchheim, deputy health editor at Consumer Reports, which has tested numerous supplements since 1995. Though the products are more consistent these days, "we still sometimes find significant variation" in the concentration of the active ingredient, he says, "sometimes more than 20 percent outside the amount on the label."

Right now testing by independent labs is the best way to ensure that your vitamins or supplements are at least reliable. Before buying, check out how the product rated on the Web site ConsumerLab.com, which tests a wide range of supplements for identity, potency and purity.

6. "Taking our advice may be hazardous to your health."
Don't assume that health food store employees are experts on their products, especially supplements. Last year the journal Breast Cancer Research published a study in which investigators went undercover to 34 health food stores and asked about recommendations for supplements for their fictional mother, diagnosed with breast cancer. The stores suggested 33 products, none of which has sufficient evidence of effectiveness. Of the 10 employees who asked which prescriptions the mother was taking, only eight mentioned that the drug tamoxifen might interact with the natural remedies.

Though this particular study focused on a small group of stores, it was modeled on similar research that drew the same conclusion. "Every study we've seen has found the same thing" — that the health advice dispensed by clerks is "usually in a range of 50 to 100 percent wrong," says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs the Web site at www.quackwatch.org. "Imagine going to a doctor with (that) batting average." The majority of health food store workers have no scientific training, he points out. If you are interested in trying dietary supplements, check with your doctor about any adverse interactions with your prescribed medicines.

7. "Enhanced foods can be too much of a good thing."
Though many people exercise caution when downing supplements in the form of pills, it's easy to forget that we may be overloading on certain nutrients by regularly consuming the "enhanced" foods sold in health food stores. Soy is the perfect example: Due to an FDA-approved health claim that soy protein lowers LDL — or "bad" — cholesterol, and preliminary evidence that other soy components known as isoflavones may reduce symptoms of menopause, soy is a popular additive to foods. Products such as bread, juice and sports bars are often enhanced with added soy protein, sometimes including isoflavones.

However, "there are more and more studies showing that isoflavones (may not) have the greatest effect, that you may need to have the whole bean," says Julie Upton, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson. On top of that, some researchers worry that consuming high quantities of soy isoflavones may have adverse health effects, including contributing to thyroid problems in some situations. If you think adding a large amount of a particular nutrient to your diet would be beneficial, consult with your doctor as you would about a medication.

8. "Think there's no junk food here? Think again."
Gone are the days when the most sinful thing in a health food store was carob chips. Today plenty of dietary pitfalls lurk in the aisles: banana chips fried in coconut oil; vegetable crisps, which are essentially fried potatoes flavored with small amounts of vegetables; and so-called enhanced waters, which add sugar and "literally pennies worth of vitamins" to plain water to create what's basically a glorified soda, according to Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The problem is, these foods have an aura of healthfulness," in part because they are sold in a health food store, she says.

Instead, you need to read labels on packaged food just as closely in health food stores as you would in regular grocery stores. Look out for seemingly low-cal foods that actually contain several servings per package. Liebman found a giant "high energy" cookie that contained only 140 calories per serving — but four servings per cookie. Also watch for prepared vegetarian foods that are high in saturated fat — more than 4 grams per serving — from added butter, cream, and palm kernel or coconut oil.

9. "We may undo the benefits of organics."
If you are spending the extra money to buy organic food, you want to be sure you're getting your money's worth. Participants at nearly every stage of the food production process — seed vendors, farmers and processors — must be approved by independent certifiers for the final product to be labeled "organic." However, for the last link in the chain — the retailer — certification is optional except in organic food prep areas.

Why does it matter? In a store, with so many foods commingling, the potential for contamination with nonorganic substances can be high, argues Cissy Bowman, an Indiana-based organic produce farmer and a USDA-accredited certifier. Some problems: nonorganic produce stored above organic, where residues can drip onto the food below when misted with water to stay fresh, or, worse, simply mixing up conventional and organic produce that look virtually identical. Chemicals used in a noncertified store — everything from cleaning agents to rodenticide — may also wind up in the food.

Fortunately, organic certification does seem to be catching on among retailers. Whole Foods Market has had all its retail operations certified organic, as have many independent stores, such as the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis. If you don't see a certification seal posted at your local store, ask the manager how the store prevents contamination of organics.

10. "Organic shampoo? Don't waste your money."
Walk into most any health food store and you'll see seemingly organic cosmetics and personal care products that are often much pricier than their traditional drugstore equivalents. Shoppers should understand that there are no national USDA standards for organic cosmetics.

Many products create an organic halo by calling themselves "70 percent organic." Right now that 70 percent can include "organic hydrosol," essentially a tap-water-based extract of an organic plant. "Shampoo and lotion are usually well above 70 percent water anyway," says Craig Minowa, environmental scientist for the Organic Consumers Association, which is opposed to counting added water in hydrosols toward an "organic" total. "So you can have a product labeled 'organic' that's exactly the same as if you went into a Wal-Mart and bought a conventional product — with the same synthetic cleansers and preservatives." When considering an "organic" personal care product, check the ingredient list. If the first entry is hydrosol — sometimes called "organic hydroflorate," "organic plant extracts" or "floral water" — it's probably being counted toward the total.