Is buying organic produce for your kids worth it?

Grocery cart full of organic produceMost organic shoppers chose the produce isle first when it comes to organic food. It’s much more tangible to smell a luscious organic strawberry and know it’s not listed on the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list. It’s a delight to pull off an organic seedless grape and savor the burst of flavor before purchasing a bag.

We all have to start somewhere, and the visual appeal, along with incredible taste, of organic produce is a good place to commence when buying healthy food for children. Organic food offers earthly delights as well as principles, practices and government-backed rules that produce cleaner and healthier food.

Yet some folks think otherwise.

A recent article in the SLATE  titled, “Organic Shmorganic,” does its best to question many assumptions about the benefits of organic food.  Fresh produce is its primary target. (Apparently there’s more to come on dairy, meat and eggs.) The author of the SLATE piece notes “… there is little evidence that the differences {between organic and conventional} translate into actual health benefits.” There has been much re-twittering and dialogue about the piece and one thing everyone agrees on — our children (indeed all Americans) should be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.  Those of us who have been enjoying organic food for years know the benefits, but for many consumers, stories like the one in SLATE sow confusion and raise unnecessary barriers to exploring the organic produce aisle.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) posted a blog by Alex Formuzis, “The Case for Organic Fruits and Veggies,” which offers a broad view on the issue. Chemical agriculture has enormous effects on other vital resources that every American relies on, such as drinking water, air and soil, not to mention the well-documented harm that pesticide exposure does to farm workers and their families. Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean of Global Health and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, is quoted as saying, “Strong and well-conducted studies published in leading peer-reviewed journals have shown that families who consume an organic diet have 90 percent lower levels of pesticides in their bodies than families who consistently consume ‘conventional’ pesticide-treated foods.”

Back in 1993, The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report on the effect of pesticides in the diets of infants and children. This historic report concluded that many of “the pesticides applied to food crops in this country are present in foods and may pose risks to human health.”  The report demonstrated that infants and children have special sensitivities to these toxic inputs. Children consume notably more of certain foods relative to their body weight than do adults. Thus, their ingestion of pesticide residues on these foods may be proportionately higher than that of adults. Certain chronic toxic effects such as cancer, exposures occurring early in life may pose greater risks than those occurring later in life. For these reasons, risk assessment methods that have traditionally been used for adults may require modification when applied to infants and children.

In short, the NAS committee stated bluntly that EPA-set pesticide tolerances governing allowable levels in food were set to protect adults, based on laboratory data collected from experiments with healthy, adult mice and rats, and that infants are not just “little adults.” The Committee emphasized that pregnant women and unborn children, as well as infants and children, are much more vulnerable to possibly life-long adverse impacts from even very low pesticide exposures. This is true for several reasons, including:

  • Infants and children eat far more food per pound of bodyweight, because they are growing so fast
  • The blood-brain barrier remains partially permeable during fetal development and the first year of life, increasing the odds that developmental neurotoxins, like organophosphate insecticides, might do serious damage to the brain’s architecture or wiring
  • An infant’s liver and kidneys are not fully developed, and hence are less efficient at filtering out and/or detoxifying potentially hazardous chemicals
  • Endocrine disrupting pesticides can block or otherwise disrupt the normal development of complex organ systems, impacting in particular life-long immune response and sexual development and reproductive health
  • Infants and young children eat a much less diverse diet, and so when one food in a child’s diet has residues in or on it, the child’s exposure tends to be higher

This was groundbreaking work and established a new consensus among scientists that pesticide regulatory policy and risk assessment science had to be fundamentally re-tooled to specifically take into account – and prevent – pesticides risks during pregnancy and childhood.  Since the report’s release in 1993, new science has strengthened the consensus and added a sense of urgency to efforts to eliminate dietary exposures to high-risk pesticides.  While progress has been made, half-measures are not good enough when the health of the next generation is on the line.

In 2006, a highly acclaimed study focused on school-age children in the Seattle area showed predominantly organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphate (OP) pesticides. When children were fed a predominantly organic diet for just 5 days, the urinary metabolites of the OP insecticides malathion and chlorpyrifos fell to undetectable levels. But after just a few days back on the conventional food diet, OP urinary metabolite levels rose back up to pre-study levels. Additionally, a 2012 study at UC Berkeley found high organophosphate levels in the blood and urine of women living in agricultural areas. Symptoms of OP exposure can result in anxiety, headache, convulsions, ataxia, depression of respiration and circulation, tremor, general weakness, and potentially coma. Those sounds like warning signs we want to avoid!

What about the health of our newborn children? What are the effects of too many agricultural chemicals on our infants? One study published in Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis reported that pesticide exposure results in lower birth weights. A recent joint report by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine suggests that environmental chemicals such as pesticides are a real risk during pregnancy.

We should note that in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on pesticide exposure in children, stating, “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity. New understanding of chronic health implications from both acute and chronic exposure are emerging. Recognizing and reducing problematic exposures will require attention to current inadequacies in regulatory action on pesticides.” As Pesticide Action Network (PAN) paraphrased, “when it comes to children and pesticides, it’s time our policies caught up with the science.” You can read PAN’s take on the SLATE article  for more insights. They examined more than 200 peer-reviewed studies on children’s health indicating that pesticides are indeed a cause for concern. Please check out the findings in their report, “A Generation in Jeopardy.” 

The effects of pesticides don’t necessarily end with this generation.  A recent Environmental Health Perspectives publication detailed the effects that exposure to environmental pollutants that act as endocrine disruptors can have over multiple generations. This suggests that the health effects of pesticide exposure may be passed on to children and their children! delicious organic produce

I agree with the SLATE article that we should be eating and feeding our children more fresh fruits and vegetables.  The science behind that is clear and irrefutable. I also believe, as do many scientists, that organic should be the first choice when it comes to fresh produce and fruit juices, especially for pregnant women, infants, and children.

Organic is the food system with the most transparency and strictest compliance programs in the US. Organic is the gold standard when it comes to reducing your exposure to chemical residues and genetically modified organisms. Organic is delicious, aromatic and full of nutrition, all of which comes from soil that is abundant with life and fertility.

Humans have been practicing organic agriculture for over 10,000 years. Less than 70 years ago, cunning chemists reformulated war time chemicals that could be repurposed and sprayed on our food. Who really knows the health ramifications in such a short blip on our evolutionary radar? Organic is the best food choice based on the lessons of history and cutting-edge, 21st Century science… and in my opinion deeper, richer flavor is icing on the cake!

If you have an additional study or set of data on pesticide residues in food, please let me know about it. Let’s celebrate the benefits of organic food and avoid agricultural chemicals in everyday foods and beverages, and tilt the playing field in favor of healthy development for the next generation of Americans.

11 thoughts on “Is buying organic produce for your kids worth it?

  1. Brilliant article, especially this bit:

    Humans have been practicing organic agriculture for over 10,000 years. Less than 70 years ago, cunning chemists reformulated war time chemicals that could be repurposed and sprayed on our food. Who really knows the health ramifications in such a short blip on our evolutionary radar?

    That sums up EXACTLY why organic is best 🙂

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