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Organic Food Facts: Your Shopping Guide

Once your baby starts solids, you begin to think more about where your food comes from, and how it is produced. But if you're on a limited budget (and who isn't these days?), you can't help but wonder: Is organic food worth the higher price? Unfortunately, there's no clear answer to this question. It comes down to a personal choice about what you think is best for your family. To make this less confusing, we've assembled the facts and made sense of the controversies so you can decide how best to spend your money.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as any food produced without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and most conventional pesticides. Organic farmers use fertilizers that aren't made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge (um, yuck). Furthermore, irradiation (zapping food with radiation to kill bacteria and give it a longer shelf life) and bioengineering (genetically altering plants to make them hardier, among other things) aren't permitted.

Do all of these safeguards make organic food more nutritious? That's up for debate. Until more is known, the main reason to buy organic is to reduce exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and synthetic hormones. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies that protect health, says that pesticides have been linked, for example, to harmful effects on the nervous system and reproductive organs. Babies might be especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides because "they eat more per pound of body weight than adults," says Amy Marlow, R.D., coauthor of Happy Baby: The Organic Guide to Baby's First 24 Months. Plus, toxins (like pesticide residue) are stored in fat, and babies have a higher percentage of body fat than adults.

But not all experts agree that conventional farming practices are risky to kids' (and adults') health. Carl K. Winter, Ph.D., a food toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, says that "the amount of pesticide residue found in produce is not significant enough to make food unsafe." He adds, "The most important thing is to make sure that kids are eating lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, whether they're organic or not." So don't feel guilty if you can't afford organic all the time or if organic isn't available. What to do if you want to buy some organic foods? We asked around to find out which foods are worth the higher price -- and which ones aren't.

Baby food: Babies eat a lot of it, and processing and cooking don't get rid of potential chemicals, Marlow says. Buy organic when possible.

Meat and poultry: In conventional farming, animal feed is often laced with antibiotics to limit the spread of disease, and synthetic hormones to speed growth. Residue from these chemicals may still be present in the meat we eat. Some experts think the use of antibiotics in food production could contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Milk: Dairy cows are fed growth hormones and antibiotics similar to those used in animals raised for meat. Research suggests the chemicals make their way into the cows' milk. The higher the fat content of the milk (and of other dairy products made with milk), the higher the level of chemicals that may be present -- and toddlers drink a lot of whole milk.

Certain fruits and vegetables: Some kinds of produce contain higher amounts of pesticide residue than others. Apples, for instance, hover hear the top of the high-pesticide-level list. They're also a favorite of kids; apples, apple juice, and applesauce are among the most common foods eaten by children ages 1 to 5, according to a USDA survey. So consider buying organic varieties of the fruit and products made with it. Ditto for carrots and peaches.

The Dirty Dozen

Here's a list of the most pesticide-packed produce. Be sure to buy the organic variety of the following:

1. Peaches

2. Apples

3. Bell peppers

4. Celery

5. Nectarines

6. Strawberries

7. Cherries

8. Kale

9. Lettuce

Produce with the highest pesticide levels (per the Environmental Working Group):

10. Imported grapes

11. Carrots

12. Pears

Packaged goods: If the product is high in fat, sugar, and salt, the organic label doesn't redeem it.

Fruits and vegetables with an inedible peel: There are exceptions, but in general, picks such as watermelon or eggplant contain relatively low levels of pesticide (see "The Clean 15" for more suggestions). Even produce without a rind or peel (such as broccoli, cabbage, and tomatoes) can have low levels of toxic residue. Visit foodnews.org later this year for an updated list.

If you're watching your wallet, these fruits and vegetables have the lowest levels of pesticide residue, according to the Environmental Working Group, so it's fine to buy conventional versions. However, if your baby eats any of these foods daily (perhaps he's an avocado connoisseur?), consider moving it to your organic shopping list.

The Clean 15

1. Onions

2. Avocado

3. Corn

4. Pineapple

5. Mangoes

6. Asparagus

7. Sweet peas

8. Kiwifruit

9. Cabbage

10. Eggplant

11. Papaya

12. Watermelon

13. Broccoli

14. Tomatoes

15. Sweet potatoes

The bottom line? Feed your baby some organic food if you can, but don't stress if you can't. If she eats a wide variety of nutritious foods, you're doing your job!

Originally published in the May 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.