A parent's perspective on the recently published Stanford University study that found that organic foods aren't more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.
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Credit: Jonny Valiant

Several years ago there was major hubbub over a Stanford University study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which found that organic foods aren't more nutritious than food that is conventionally grown. The researchers compiled data from more than 200 previously published studies, intending to establish whether organics really offer more bang for your extra bucks. According to the newspaper headlines, they don't.

But I'm not going to stop buying organic when my budget allows. To me, those blaring headlines missed the point, the real reason many of us buy organic: our kids. For most of my life I hardly considered which pesticides were in my food, or what those pesticides might be doing to the planet (never mind the field workers who essentially bathe in them). I shopped at the farmers' market because the produce tasted better to me, not because I worried about farming practices.

Once my son, Harry, was born, my whole worldview shifted. Looking at his tiny, 6-pound body, watching him struggle to latch on and be nourished by my breast milk, it was suddenly obvious how important it was to think about what I was eating—and later, what he was. Maybe my body can handle the relatively small amounts of pesticide residue allowed by law in our food, but can his? And what are those chemicals doing to the world I'm leaving him?

At 6 years old, Harry's still a featherweight—barely 40 pounds—but he can pack away a pound of strawberries in a single sitting. Strawberries carry more pesticide residue than almost every other fruit. When I put those two facts together, the decision to buy organic berries is pretty easy. I don't give a hoot if they've got the exact same amount of Vitamin C.

Now, let's talk about some of the findings in that study that didn't make headlines—the ones related specifically to kids and moms:

  • Conventional produce has a 32 percent higher risk of pesticide contamination than organic—and kids on organic diets had significantly lower levels of pesticide residue in their urine. One group of kids showed a dramatic difference after just five days on an organic diet. Granted, the kids who ate conventionally grown food had levels that were still considered safe, but we don't really know the long-term effects of many newer pesticides. What's "safe" now may not be in 2032. (When I was young, DDT was still in use!)
  • Toddlers who ate predominately organic dairy products had a lower risk of eczema at age 2 than kids who didn't. It's a relatively small point, but it made me wonder what other, unexamined effects those chemicals might be having on little ones.
  • The breast milk of moms who ate mostly organic dairy and meat had significantly higher amounts of two beneficial fatty acids. So if you're nursing, what you eat really does affect what your baby eats.

Look, I'm far from wealthy. I can't afford to buy everything organic, and I'm not sure I would if I could. When I was researching the organics-shopping section of Parents Need to Eat Too, I consulted Cindy Burke, author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic: What You Need to Know to Choose the Healthiest, Safest, Most Earth-Friendly Food. We came up with some solid, money-saving advice:

  • Consult the Environmental Working Group's annual Dirty Dozen list, which shows which fruits and vegetables carry the most pesticides. If your kids eat a lot of anything on the list, it's probably wise to spend the extra money.
  • In fact, think about any food your children consume in quantity. Does your kid guzzle milk by the gallon or eat a burger for dinner every night? Go organic.
  • The more processed a food, the more of those residues are stripped away. If it stretches your budget too thin, don't feel bad about skipping the organic cookies.
  • And don't obsess too much about the official "organic" label—the process to become certified is lengthy and costly, so many smaller farmers don't pursue it. Instead, talk to the sellers at your farmers' market. Ask about their practices. It's likely you'll find food that's organically grown, even if it doesn't have the fancy seal.