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Health blog

Organic Foods for Your Children: worth the extra money?

Most parents want to do what’s best for their children. A controversial question parents often debate is whether or not they should be feeding their children organic foods. People cite health concerns, environmental concerns and financial concerns when they talk about organic foods. The market for organic foods and beverages is nearing $30 billion annually and continues to grow. Organic foods may cost 50% to 100% more than conventionally grown products, a significant factor in today’s economy.

What exactly does organic mean? The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates terms on organic food labels: “100% organic” means the food has no synthetic ingredients and can use the organic seal; "organic" means the food has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and can also use the organic seal; and "made with organic ingredients" means the food contains at least 70% organic ingredients, but those foods cannot use the organic seal. Meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy labeled "organic" must come from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones.

Better or not?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently weighed in for the first time on organic food for children. The AAP noted that organic diets have clearly demonstrated they expose consumers to lower levels of pesticides than conventionally grown foods. This may be significant to children, who are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. And organically raised animals are also less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria because the rules of organic farming prohibit the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. That’s an important point to consider with horror stories of raging infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the news.

And yet, according to the AAP report, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or a lower risk of disease. There have been no large studies in humans that specifically address this issue. Joel Forman, M.D., one of the study’s authors, says, “We simply do not have the scientific evidence to know whether the difference in pesticide levels [between an organic and non-organic diet] will impact a person’s health over a lifetime. We do know that young children whose brains are developing are uniquely vulnerable to chemical exposures.”

How about nutrition? Surely organic foods must be healthier for us? The AAP found that nutritional differences between organic and conventional produce are minimal and not clinically relevant. Organic and conventionally grown foods have the same vitamins, minerals, proteins, antioxidants, lipids and other nutrients needed for a child’s health. The same is true for organic and conventional milk. Nor does conventional milk contain more bacterial contamination than organic milk. However, pediatricians stress that all milk should be pasteurized to reduce the risk of bacterial infections, such as salmonella and listeria.

When to choose organic
If cost is a factor, families can be selective in choosing organic foods. According to information on WebMD, there are times when it’s worth paying extra for certain organic foods, and times when it’s just fine to stick with conventionally grown foods. For examples, peaches with their thin skins, are especially susceptible to pesticide contamination. Pesticides tend to accumulate on the skins of fruits and vegetables, so we are likely to get more pesticides when we eat produce with its skin intact. Buy organic apples when possible. Other organic foods to buy include bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, beef (because of added hormones and antibiotic use), peanut butter and baby food.

Foods with thick skins – which we do not typically eat – are safe to buy when conventionally grown. These include papayas, mangoes, kiwi, pineapple, avocados, bananas, melons and onions. Other conventionally grown foods safe to eat include broccoli, cabbage, peas, corn and asparagus.

The bottom line
The AAP says the most important thing is for children to eat lean meats, low-fat or non-fat dairy products, whole grains, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. It’s far better for a child to eat five servings of conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables daily than it is to eat one serving of organic produce. The proven health benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure for most people.

Janet Silverstein, MD, another of the AAP study’s authors says, “Many families have a limited food budget, and we do not want families to choose to consume smaller amounts of more expensive organic foods, and thus reduce their overall intake of healthy foods.”

Resources: American Academy of Pediatrics at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Weighs-In-For-First-Time-On-Organic-Foods-For-Children.aspx; Organic Trade Association at: www.ota.com; and WebMD at: http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20121023/organic-food-kids;
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