The Real Mom's Guide to Buying Organic Food

It’s time to end the grocery-store guilt trips. Get the facts about organic foods, antibiotics, pesticides, and the Dirty Dozen.
Linda Xiao

I've had a lot of angst over strawberries. I’ve stood in the produce aisle contemplating my options, knowing that I’d feel virtuous if I chose the organic ones and be hit with a pang of guilt if I didn’t. It was a complicated guilt— that I wasn’t willing to pay two dollars more, that I was prioritizing my budget over protecting my family. From what, however, I admit I didn’t entirely know. And I’m a dietitian. But I had the same internal debate over the broccoli. And the apples. And the milk, yogurt, and chicken. Week after week, aisle by aisle, grocery shopping had become one giant guilt trip.

The organic-food market is booming. Sales have reached more than $40 billion a year, and young parents are buying more organic than ever. But plenty of moms still grapple with the choice, caught in a shame spiral over spinach. 

Feeding that angst is social media, which seems to have new, dire warnings about food every day. Between what we hear from scientists, celebrities, and the random person behind us in line at Trader Joe’s, it’s hard to know what to believe. The issue is so often framed in black-andwhite terms: good and bad, toxic and safe, clean and dirty. But it’s not nearly that simple. We got the facts from all sides so you can make decisions that feel right for your family—and kick grocery-shopping stress to the curb once and for all. 

You've Heard: Organic food contains more nutrients. 

The Facts: Some studies show slight differences, like a 2014 analysis that found organic fruits and veggies were higher in certain kinds of antioxidants that lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. There’s also evidence that full-fat organic dairy (especially 100 percent grassmilk dairy, the kind from cows raised entirely on pasture and stored, foragebased feeds like hay) contains higher amounts of hearthealthy fats and especially omega-3s. Ounce for ounce, fish still has more of those healthy fats than any kind of milk or cheese, but switching to organic dairy products could be a smart move for families who don’t eat much fish, says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., a former researcher at Washington State University and author of many studies on the nutrient content of organic food. However, other studies have found minimal differences in nutrition. In a review of nearly 250 studies published in Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers concluded there wasn’t strong evidence that organic food is significantly more nutritious than conventional food. 

You've Heard: Pesticides on food are harmful to kids.

The Facts: Chemical pesticides that are used on conventional crops are at the heart of the organic debate. “There’s absolutely no question that families eating organic food are exposed to fewer quantities of pesticides,” says Parents advisor Philip Landrigan, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. In research from the University of Washington, kids eating a nonorganic diet had by-products of synthetic pesticides in their urine—and these immediately dropped to nondetectable levels when they started eating organic instead.

That sounds scary since pesticides can have toxic effects in large doses, and children’s still-developing systems are particularly vulnerable. “Childhood is a time when neural and hormonal pathways are being laid down for a lifetime,” says Kate Geagan, R.D., author of Go Green, Get Lean. “Pesticides may impact these pathways in critical windows.” She points to studies like one in Pediatrics that found that children with higher urinary levels of pesticides were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. “It just makes sense to take prudent measures to lessen kids’ exposure to these chemicals,” says Dr. Landrigan.

However, in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) weighed in, saying that there were no well-designed human studies showing health benefits or disease protection from eating an organic diet—and no studies showing a link between pesticide exposure and negative effects on brain development.

And there are already some safeguards in place. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines which pesticides are safe and sets allowable limits for residue (the amount left in or on the food). However, Dr. Landrigan says many of those standards are outdated. 

You've Heard: Products labeled “all-natural” are healthier.

The Facts: This claim only means there’s nothing synthetic added. The product may still be loaded with sugar and sodium and contain very few nutrients.

You've Heard: The risks are higher than ever. 

The Facts: Pesticide residues on food have dropped in the last two decades, thanks to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. Since then, the EPA says that pesticide risk— based on both the exposure to a pesticide and its toxicity— fell by nearly 50 percent for 16 foods commonly eaten by kids, including apples, carrots, grapes, green beans, and oranges. “The benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risk of pesticides,” says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chair of the AAP’s Council on Environmental Health and chief of medical toxicology at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “Whether their food is fresh, frozen, or canned, children need to get fruits and vegetables, organic or not.” Plus, research has shown that rinsing produce for 15 to 30 seconds while gently rubbing it (you should do this for both nonorganic and organic fruits and vegetables) can remove some of the pesticide residues. However, Dr. Lowry maintains that advocacy for decreased use of pesticides on foods that children eat must continue.

You've Heard: You should buy organic for apples, strawberries, and other produce on the “Dirty Dozen” list. 

The Facts: Many of us have come to depend on the Shopper’s Guide from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that publishes “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists, which rank fruits and vegetables based on pesticide residues. In its current guide, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, and apples top the “Dirty” list, while avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, and cabbage rank as the “Cleanest.” The goal of the lists is to simplify shopping and help people on budgets prioritize their organic spending, says Sonya Lunder, Ph.D., a scientist at EWG and the lead author of the 2017 lists. 

But some say the lists are flawed and more fear-inducing than helpful. “The dose makes the poison,” says Carl Winter, M.P.H., vice chair of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis. His problem with the lists: They’re based on whether any pesticide residues were found on the produce and how many different pesticides were found—not whether the amounts of those residues actually cause harm. “The mere presence of a pesticide residue doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, and we’re not exposed to sufficient levels to cause harm,” argues Dr. Winter. 

You've Heard: The hormones in milk and meat can cause early puberty. 

The Facts: Hormones like estrogens and recombinant bovine somatotropin growth hormone (rbST) can be given on conventional farms to increase milk supply and boost growth. But the AAP says there’s no research to support that hormones used in milk and meat production trigger early puberty. Thanks in part to consumer demand for rbSTfree milk, the use of rbST is declining. It was used on less than 15 percent of cows in 2014, according to a USDA report, and the AAP says that any rbST that survived pasteurization wouldn’t be active in the human body anyway.

You've Heard: Antibiotics in meat and milk can make you sick. 

The Facts: Farms are required to remove animals that are treated with antibiotics and to reintroduce them only when the meds are out of their system. Milk, meat, and poultry are also routinely tested for antibiotic residues (antibiotics aren’t allowed in organicfood production). The real issue is that the overuse of antibiotics on farms (and by people) contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—and these bacteria could make their way into our bodies from the foods we eat. That could leave us vulnerable when we need antibiotic treatment. It’s now illegal to put antibiotics important to human medicine in animal feed or drinking water to promote growth, but these drugs can still be used for disease prevention and other purposes with a veterinarian’s approval. For your part, cooking meat and poultry to safe temperatures (and avoiding crosscontamination in the kitchen, like using separate cutting boards for meat and veggies) can help destroy any antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You've Heard: Organic farms don’t use pesticides.

The Facts: The USDA allows organic crops to be treated with organic pesticides— substances that are naturally occurring such as soap, hydrogen peroxide, and lime sulfur. But just because a pesticide is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s completely safe.

In the end, remember that grocery shopping doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Some people spend more for organic milk or meat but go conventional on produce or buy organic produce only when it’s on sale. Even the EWG report includes this statement in its Shopper’s Guide: “EWG always recommends eating fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown, instead of processed foods and other less-healthy alternatives.” 

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