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The latest on organic foods--five things parents need to know

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 23, 2012 10:58 AM

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One of the questions I’m most commonly asked as a doctor, and one I ask myself often as a mom, is: should I buy organic foods?

It’s not an easy question to answer, because there is a lot we don’t know about the health benefits of organic foods—or the risks of conventional ones.  It would be an easier decision if organic foods weren’t more expensive—but they are, and for lots of families buying all organic just isn’t an option. This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a clinical report to help us figure out what to do as we stand in those grocery aisles.

Here’s what they said:

1.    It’s not clear that organic foods are more nutritious. They might be, but so far there isn’t the scientific evidence to prove it—in part because there are so many variables like humidity, soil quality or how the food is harvested that affect nutrition. If you are making your decision purely from a nutrition standpoint, organic doesn't seem to be necessary.

2.    Organic produce has fewer pesticides. Nobody is arguing this point—this is part of what defines organic foods. What is tricky here is that we don’t know if the amount of pesticides in conventional foods is dangerous or not. There are studies that suggest that exposure to pesticides during pregnancy can lead to learning and behavior problems in children—in general, it’s babies and children we worry most about. They get a higher dose because they are smaller—and chemicals can be dangerous for their developing brains and bodies. But the truth is, we just don’t know what’s safe at any age. 

But before you cancel your cable so you can pay for all organic produce, not all produce is the same when it comes to pesticides. Conventionally grown corn on the cob and onions, for example, don’t have much at all—but apples and grapes do. There’s some great information available from the Environmental Working Group (including a great app called Dirty Dozen) that can help you decide when buying organic makes the most sense. 

3. Organic meats have fewer resistant bacteria in them. Conventional farms give animals antibiotics to make them bigger. And whenever you use antibiotics a lot, you kill off the weaker bacteria and leave the resistant ones, like MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), that are causing all sorts of really tough infections these days.

There isn’t really much risk of catching one of these infections from making burgers, especially if you cook the meat well and wash your hands. But by buying meats from companies that don’t use antibiotics you can help fight the superbug problem. And that’s a good thing. 

4. You don’t need to buy organic milk (or organic infant formulas). Pesticides really aren’t a problem in milk, so you don’t need to worry about that. What most people worry about is hormones—but it turns out that we don’t really need to worry about that, either. Yes, cows are given bovine (cow) growth hormone, and it gets into their milk—but besides the fact that it gets broken down by pasteurization and our digestive systems, it’s a cow hormone; it doesn’t affect humans. Cows are also given estrogen, but the amount that gets into milk is too small to cause any trouble (another reason to drink lowfat or skim milk: the higher the fat, the higher the amount of estrogen). 

5. Organic farming is better for the environment and for sustaining our resources. It leaves a better earth for our children, and that’s important. By buying organic foods, we encourage more farmers to use organic methods for making our food—and to find cheaper ways to do it, something the AAP says is absolutely possible if we set our minds to it. 

In making the organic-or-not decision at the grocery store, remember that the most important thing is to eat a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats—whether or not they are organic. Having five servings a day of conventional produce is healthier than one serving a day of organic produce. There’s also way more to overall health—like exercise, getting enough sleep and immunizations. As with everything in life—and especially in parenting—it’s crucial to keep some perspective.

Some more resources:

Information about organic foods and labeling from the US Department of Agriculture

Consumer Report's 2008 article "Fruits and Vegetables, When to Buy Organic", a great website with everything you might want to know about food safety.


This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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