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My father was not a religious man. He did not say grace before meals. He would, though, frequently pause to contemplate his favorite dessert.

"I don't know why the Good Lord couldn't have made pecan pie and ice cream a health food," he would declare, mournfully, before downing it.

Maybe that's why he wasn't religious. Too many design flaws.

The issue of what does and does not qualify as a health food is always an interesting and fluid one. The question of whether, say, coffee is good for you swings back and forth like a door in a Western saloon.

A small-town radio station I used to listen to featured "Your Weekly Poultry Chat," basically a half-hour rant by an old man who sold eggs about how cholesterol was really good for you, gol durn it, no matter what those smarty-pants nutritionists from the university said.

Now we know that there is "bad cholesterol" and "good cholesterol," and at least one study suggests that eggs are good for the good kind.

Go figure.

The latest in this to-and-fro was last week's release of a study that concluded that foods properly labeled as "organic" are not appreciably more nutritious than the more common, and often considerably less expensive, foods that do not qualify for such a designation.

Many people have, apparently, bought the notion that organics are higher in vitamins or other nutrients, and that's why they shell out the extra bucks for organic milk, meat and veggies. If that's the reason, the study suggests, they're being had.

But, as The Atlantic online noted the other day, "That isn't the point."

There is a very definitely non-mutually exclusive difference between nutritious — what's in it — and healthy — what's not in it. And what's not poured onto it. What's not taken out of the soil it grew in. What's not introduced into the larger environment in the process.

And there are lots of reasons to believe that organic foods are healthier for you, mostly because of the reduced amount of pesticide residues found on them, healthier for the land it was grown on, healthier for the workers who tended and harvested it, healthier for the groundwater, rivers and oceans that receive the run-off.

The immediate difference at your dinner table, though, is arguably marginal. So people who buy organic groceries have made a decision that they will spend more money than is necessary to satisfy their own nutritional requirements and their own gustatory needs because they want to Save the Planet over dinner.

And, yes, they want to be seen doing so. It's a reason why the Toyota Prius hybrid has a distinct design. Folks want street cred for the extra money they plunked down for a car that may never pay itself back in gasoline savings.

It's why Whole Foods is always crowded, and why people are happy to be seen reusing its bags. (My favorite online comment of all time was on a Tribune article about the opening of the new Whole Foods store in Trolley Square: "That explains the layer of smug that has settled over the valley.")

If a community, a country or a planet is going to survive over the long term, individuals have to do things that discomfort themselves in the short run — or maybe forever.

There are different ways that happens. Laws can work. Social pressure can work better.

So have that (organic) ice cream on top of those (locally grown) pecans prepared with (anything but high-fructose corn syrup). You might not weigh any less. But the burden you place upon the Earth will be considerably smaller.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, wishes to further impress you with his progressive credentials at Email:

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