Nutrition: Should Families Eat Organic?

Is it healthier to eat organic foods or just trendy? We serve up the facts.

Going Green

"When my oldest daughter started solids, I was crazy about scouring grocery stores for organic produce to make her food," says Kate Clow, of Summit, New Jersey. She did the same for her second child too. In fact, Clow shopped at four supermarkets to give her kids what she thought was best. Now that the girls are a little older, Clow makes some exceptions -- for instance, when she's darting to the nearest store for produce, she'll take what's available.

The Clows are one of many American families going green. Although organic food sales make up just 2.5 percent of the retail food market, they're rising by about 20 percent each year. Why? According to a Whole Foods Market survey, 70 percent of consumers buy organic to avoid pesticides; another 67 percent do so to promote good health. Yet questions remain: Are organic foods indeed safer and more nutritious?

The Claim: Organic Is Safer Because It's Pesticide Free

The facts: Organic crops are produced without chemical fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides. But they may not be free of pesticide residues. "A lot of the residues found on our food are from long-banned pesticides, such as DDT, because it's persistent in our soil," says Luddene Perry, an organic farmer and the coauthor of A Field Guide to Buying Organic (Bantam Dell). Plus, pesticides can blow over from a neighboring conventional farm. And these lower pesticide levels haven't been established as safer, says Carl Winter, PhD, a food toxicologist at the University of California at Davis.

In fact, everything in supermarkets has earned the government's seal of approval for safety. The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for the residue levels allowed in or on food, which are in the parts per million, even billion.

Bottom line: If your kid eats a lot of fruits and veggies, it might be worth the extra bucks. But don't sweat it if you can't afford it.

The Claim: Organic Snacks Are Better for You

The facts: A cookie is still a cookie, whether it's organic or not! Don't forget that organic processed foods can be high in calories and total fat and may contain refined grains and undesirable additives. It's still important to read the labels closely on organic packaging to see what you're really getting.

As Julie Jones, PhD, a nutrition and food science professor at the College of St. Catherine, in St. Paul, puts it: "The real issue is whether you're eating and offering your family nutritious foods rather than foods that are high in calories, sugar, salt, and fat." Fresh is best, and those snacks can still be convenient and offer a nutritional punch. Jones suggests offering your kids clementine segments, yogurt smoothies, whole-grain crackers, and avocado and banana slices.

Bottom line: Spend your organic dollars on produce instead.

The Claim: High Hormone Levels in Dairy Cause Early-Onset Puberty

The facts: Many parents voice concern over added hormones used in dairy production, but the jury is still out on this. The synthetic hormone at the center of the debate: rbST (also known as rbGH), which is given to cows to increase conventional dairy production. The FDA maintains that the hormone is inactive in our bodies and that little is absorbed during digestion. There are critics, however, who disagree and are concerned about even slight exposure to synthetic hormones.

Bottom line: If you want to reduce your family's exposure to hormones, buy organic milk. And watch your child's weight: "If parents are truly concerned about the early onset of puberty, they should make great efforts to prevent obesity," says Jones. "That's because menstruation may start earlier in overweight girls compared with those who are more lean."

The Claim: Antibiotic Use in Livestock Contributes to Antibiotic Resistance

The facts: Overuse -- whether through agriculture or medicine -- puts us all at risk for antibiotic resistance. However, Kathryn Boor, PhD, a food science professor at Cornell University, says dairy producers take precautions to make sure antibiotics don't end up in conventional milk.

As far as meat is handled, it's tested to avoid high levels of antibiotics. Regardless, some argue that the European Union has been more prudent because, unlike the U.S., it has banned feeding antibiotics to livestock to increase growth.

Bottom line: If you're concerned, buy organic meat, which is free of antibiotics.

The Claim: Organic Foods Are More Nutritious

The facts: In some cases, organic produce does contain more disease-fighting phytochemicals, says Jones. However, don't think that you'll never get the cold or flu again by eating strictly organic fruits and vegetables. Nutrient content can vary depending on factors such as soil type, rainfall, temperature, and harvesting techniques, explains Karrie Heneman, PhD, a researcher in the nutrition department at the University of California at Davis.

That's why people should never lose sight of the fact that a varied diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables -- regardless of whether this fare is organic or not -- is your best bet to ward off illness.

Bottom line: Ultimately, when it comes to buying organic, you have to decide what feels right for your family, as did Kate Clow: "It kills me some days to spend $3 more on a pint of strawberries," says Clow, "but buying organic is important to me."

The "Dirty" Dozen

Worried about pesticides? Then go organic with these 12 fruits and veggies, in descending order of most pesticide exposure, according to the Environmental Working Group:

  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Grapes (Imported)
  10. Spinach
  11. Lettuce
  12. Potatoes

Did You Know?

Despite some claims in stores, fish can't be certified as organic because no U.S. standards currently exist.

50 percent of American Baby magazine readers buy organic food.

Also, here is your guide to organic lingo:

  • 100% Organic: Contains only organic ingredients (except for water and salt).
  • Organic: At least 95 percent of the ingredients are produced organically. The remaining 5 percent can be nonorganic agricultural ingredients, such as cornstarch, that aren't commercially available in organic form, as well as substances allowed on the National List (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/nationallist/listhome.html).
  • Made with organic ingredients: At least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic; the product can't contain added sulfites, a food preservative. Up to 30 percent of the product's ingredients can be nonorganic or include substances from the National List.
  • Less than 70 percent organic: The organic elements must be clearly listed in the ingredient statement.
  • Free range or free roaming: This term typically refers to poultry raised for meat, although it can apply to hens that lay eggs. The birds have access to the outdoors, which makes for better living conditions, but there's no proven human health benefit to this, such as reduced risk of food-borne illness. Note: Organic chicken is raised using free-range practices, but free-range chicken may not be organic.

For more on free-range meat and a rundown of all "green" IDs, such as "natural," go to eco-labels.org.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. 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.

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