The organic industry is large and growing with sales of almost $32 billion in 2011 and continued growth expected. Many parents buy organic in hopes of decreasing their kids’ risk of disease, keeping them healthier and reducing their exposure to pesticides. However, a recent study called the idea into question that organic products are healthier. So what is the evidence?

Several large analyses which took data from all available studies on organic products and pooled the data from the studies into one group to compare differences have all found little evidence that organic products are more nutritious or produce better health outcomes.

So do we give up on organics? Not so fast.

Are organics less contaminated?

Yes. Organic products are less likely to be contaminated with pesticides compared to conventionally grown produce. About 7 percent of organic produce is contaminated with pesticides, and organics are 30 percent less likely to be contaminated compared to other produce. Studies in children have shown that kids who eat exclusively organic foods have less pesticide residue in their urine; however, they don’t seem to be healthier than other children.

Pesticides are of particular concern in children because their body systems are developing, and they consume a large amount of food/energy for their body size. Therefore, their exposure to pesticides per unit of body weight could be larger than adults. Possible harm from pesticides could include: blocking absorption of nutrients, inadequate removal of the pesticide from the child’s body, or alteration of a child’s DNA. 

However, because of these concerns, in the U.S. the Environmental Protection Agency carefully monitors how much exposure children are likely to have based on what they typically eat and then they set regulatory limits for use well below the level that would be thought likely to cause harm. Still, many parents and physicians feel the less exposure the better, thus the interest in organically grown/produced food.

Are organics more nutritious?

The answer to this question is “probably not.” The majority of studies show no difference in nutrient content of organic produce versus others.  A few do show differences, but it is difficult to get good studies that compare growing methods directly. Factors like ripeness and weather can change the nutrient content of a food regardless of how it is grown.  However, milk and chicken that is organically-produced   contain slightly higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids (which are thought to be especially healthy) and lower amounts of omega 6 fats (which are thought to be less healthy). However, the differences are very small, and most people get their omega 3s through better sources such as fatty fish, flaxseed, soy, and walnuts.

What about the social benefits of eating organically?

One would think this would be a simple answer, but it isn’t. Organic growing methods have become big business. Not all organic farmers use resources wisely, meaning water may be used wastefully or monoculture (a practice of planting only the same type of plant, which is harder on soil) may be used in organic farming. Thus, it may not be a more sustainable farming method, depending on how it is done. In addition, though farm workers may face less pesticide exposure on organic farms, they may still face poor working conditions, crowding, and poor housing, which negatively influence their health.

So what can I do to eat responsibly?

If you are on a budget, you might consider buying the following produce from organic sources, since they are most likely to be contaminated:

  • Apples, celery, bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries, potatoes, kale, green beans

 For other types of produce, you could consider buying produce that is locally produced by small farmers, which is more likely to be sustainable from an environmental perspective and is not likely to use coercive practices for workers.

Kathleen Davis is an outpatient dietitian at Cook Children’s Medical Center.

 References

  • Smith-Spangler. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012.
  • Dangour. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010.
  • Magkos. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2006.
  • Williams. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2002
  • EPA: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/food/pest.htm

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