With reports that antioxidants, omega-3s and other critical nutrients can help stave off disease, many people with arthritis turn to the grocery aisles to save their joints. So we asked the experts to weigh in on one of the most hotly debated food topics: Is organic necessary for good health?

Q: What does "organic" really mean?

A: To earn the United States Department of Agriculture’s, or USDA, organic certification, crops must be grown on land that has been free of prohibited substances – including conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers – for at least three years, and animal products must be raised on organic feed without the use of added hormones or antibiotics.

Q: If organic food has fewer pesticides, and we know pesticides may play a role in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, shouldn't we always eat organic?

A: Not necessarily. According to Jo Ann Hattner, a dietitian and nutrition consultant for Stanford University Medical Center and author of Gut Insight, the most important message for people with arthritis is to eat a healthy diet including at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. "But if people are concerned about the risk of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, they're better off buying organic."

Q: Is there any scientifically proven link between food chemicals and autoimmune diseases like arthritis?

A:  In the area of autoimmunity, including rheumatoid arthritis, there's not much evidence that eating organic makes a difference, says Emilio Gonzalez, MD, director and chief of the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Still, it makes sense to minimize your exposure to undesirable chemicals, hormones and antibiotics – and eating organic is one way to do that. In fact, he says, the best time to go organic is before arthritis sets in. Since organic foods contain fewer pesticides, theoretically, they wouldn't stimulate the immune system, which may lead to inflammation and ultimately arthritis.

Q: Are there nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods?

A: Government agencies like the USDA and American Dietetic Association, or ADA, stand behind their claim that organic foods are not nutritionally superior or safer than conventionally produced food. But there are a few studies suggesting that organically grown produce may be more nutrient-rich than their conventionally grown counterparts. A study from the University of California Davis, for example, found that organically grown berries and corn contained nearly 60 percent more polyphenols – natural antioxidants that may be good for health. And in a second study published in the journal Food Chemistry, Spanish researchers found that organically produced tomato juice contained more polyphenols than conventionally grown crops. Why the nutrient boost in organic foods? Scientists theorize that when plants aren’t coated in chemicals to help fight off pests and insects, they develop stronger compounds to protect themselves – not unlike the way we build antibodies when confronted with bacterial ‘bugs.’ If you eat that produce, you get those disease-fighting compounds, too!