As a registered dietitian nutritionist with a focus on families, I'm often asked "Is organic food really a better choice for kids?"
My stance is that what we feed kids should contribute health benefits without potentially harming them.
While research indicates that, overall, organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional foods, a few recent studies suggest that some organic fruits and veggies are higher in phytochemicals, and organically grown meats and milk may have a better fatty acid profile. Plus, most importantly, studies show that organic foods contain lower levels of harmful pesticide residues.
What You Need To Know
By definition, organic foods cannot be genetically modified or irradiated, they contain less hormones and antibiotics, less synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and have no sewage sludge. In addition, organic livestock are fed organic feed without animal by-products and have access to pasture. So why is all this important?
Access to Pasture
Organic cows and poultry have access to outdoor pastures, which studies suggest result in a better fatty acid profile in their meat and milk. For example, they have increased omega-3s and reduced omega-6s, which may lower the incidence of chronic diseases.
In addition, eating organic meat may be safer because the livestock is fed organic feed without animal by-products. Still, one concern is the reversal of the COOL rule, which recently went into effect. The COOL rule required labeling of country of origin of beef and pork. Due to the reversal of this rule, consumers won't know where their meat comes from and probably will have a harder time finding out what the livestock was fed.
Conventionally raised dairy products, meats, and poultry may contain growth hormones like rBGH and rBST. BGH is not active in humans and probably does not cause disease. However, milk from cows treated with rBGH may contain higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone that may potentiate cell growth and may be linked to some cancers.
Antibiotics enhance growth, resulting in larger quantities of livestock, and are frequently used in feeding conventional livestock. The use of non-therapeutic antibiotics is associated with drug-resistant organisms. Because organic production of livestock doesn't use non-therapeutic antibiotics, eating organic may minimize the proliferation of drug-resistant organisms.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are found in soy and corn products. While the potential harm of GMOs is still being debated, some prefer to avoid them until more research is done.
Some studies show that pesticide exposure in kids may potentially lead to neurological and behavioral development problems, as well as asthma, ADHD, and cancer, but there is no conclusive evidence at this point. Some studies indicate that there's an association between frequent consumption of conventionally grown foods such as apples, fruit juices, chicken/turkey, and metabolite levels of pesticides in kids' urine.
Organic produce contains smaller levels of pesticide residues than produce grown conventionally. Therefore, consuming organic produce decreases kids' exposure to pesticides. Kids are more susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides for several reasons:
- Kids have different metabolism patterns so toxins may stay in the body for longer periods.
- Organs are still developing and the exposure may affect development.
- Kids eat more food relative to their body weight than adults, so they get a higher concentration of pesticides.
So what should parents do?
Get informed and shop smartly. While there's still a lot up for debate, it appears that organic food may be safer for kids and adults alike, and can actually be more nutritious in some instances.
But above all, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, remember that it's more important for kids to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables due to their excellent nutrient profile than it is to limit produce intake when organic isn't available.
If choosing what to buy organic, start with the foods with the highest level of pesticide residue, those that are actually more nutritious in organic form, and those foods that kids eat the most frequently.
For example, different lists have been created to show the residue levels or Dietary Risk Index (DRI) of pesticides in produce. And every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a Dirty Dozen list of conventionally grown produce that should be avoided.
Based on that data, here are the eight foods that I recommend parents purchase organically for kids, if possible:
Conventionally grown potatoes have a DRI of 27 compared to 1 for organic potatoes. And according to the EWG, "the average potato has more pesticide by weight than any other produce." (In case you're wondering, conventionally grown avocados have the least pesticide levels and do not need to be organic.)
4. Tomatoes and Ketchup
The EWG found that cherry tomatoes have 13 different pesticide residues. Studies also show that organically grown tomatoes may have higher lycopene levels, which contribute more antioxidant health benefits. Kids tend to like ketchup, so to minimize pesticide exposure from frequent use of ketchup, buying organic ketchup may be a smart choice.
Since most kids drink a lot of milk, preferably their milk should be organic or rBGH- and rBST-free. Because of improved fatty acid composition, organic milk may provide more health benefits to pregnant women, infants, children, and those with increased heart disease risk.
The potentially enhanced fatty acid composition in organic meat, poultry, and eggs may benefit heart and immune health. Common pesticides like Organochlorine accumulate in fatty foods including fatty meat tissue, eggs, and milk.
Conventional soy products may have GMO ingredients. If possible, choose organic soy including tofu.
8. Peanuts/Peanut Butter
Peanuts are actually legumes and don't have a hard shell like nuts. Conventionally grown peanuts are treated with pesticides, with potential toxic effects, especially for kids. Just as in meats, Organochlorine accumulates in fatty plant foods including peanuts. Since peanut butter is commonly used in kids' diets, switching to organic may minimize pesticide exposure.