Are Organic Foods Healthier for Kids?

There's a bit of a battle brewing among some scientific communities over whether organic vegetables & meats are healthier for kids (and adults) in the long run. The controversy revolves around whether the amount of synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming is unsafe for consumers, particularly children whose bodies are still developing.

For the first time the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) is weighing in on the subject. The AAP said in a recent report, that at least with some foods, buying organic is worth the effort to avoid pesticide residue. That position is contrary to a recent study, released by Stanford University, that suggested organic foods and meats offer no health advantages for consumers. The Stanford study did show that 38% of conventional produce tested contained pesticide residue compared with only 7% of organic produce. However, the study did not address whether government standards for safe amounts of pesticide residue were sufficient to avoid health problems.

The AAP is concerned because babies of female farm workers in California showed small but significant developmental and motor delays when their mothers were exposed to pesticides at levels similar to those deemed acceptable in conventionally grown produce while pregnant.

While no studies have been done to see if exposure to similar levels of pesticides from simply eating produce causes similar problems, early exposure to lead and other toxins even at low levels- is known to be harmful to children.  The AAP believes that caution is advisable when considering conventionally grown produce.

"Clearly if you eat organic produce, you have fewer pesticides in your body," Joel Forman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a lead author of the new report, tells NPR's The Salt. That's particularly important for young children, he says, because they are especially vulnerable to chemical exposure while their brains are developing.

Pediatricians have long encouraged parents to make sure that their children are getting plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. Organic foods are typically more expensive and while parents might like to buy organic, they simply cannot afford the extra cost.

"We don't want to be telling people to eat organic if in the end, they eat less healthy," Forman says. Instead, he says, parents should think about buying organic for fruits and vegetables that are more likely to contain more pesticide residue, like spinach and celery, and going conventional for veggies like cabbage and sweet potatoes, which tend to have less. The new report recommends using the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce to help decide. "It's a good resource," Forman says. "Nobody disputes the quality of the data."

The AAP sided with the federal government and the National Dairy Foundation by stating that there are no individual health benefits from purchasing un-pasteurized organic milk. The group has previously issued concerns about children drinking raw milk stating the risk of serious infection from bacteria including Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter and Brucella.

The AAP suggests that organically raised meat and poultry may be a healthier choice for families. Large-scale ranching and poultry farms often add hormones and antibiotics to their feed to stimulate animal growth and prevent bacterial growth.  Some studies have suggested that these additives may be contributing to the rise in deadly antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, and hormonal changes in children and adults. The group is calling for more studies on these environmental exposures.

Vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains and protein are important to a well-rounded diet. If you can't afford to buy only organic foods, and many people can't, one way to lessen pesticide residue is to wash your produce before eating. The U.S. Food and Drug administration recommends washing produce with large amounts of cold or warm tap water. Scrub with a brush when appropriate but do not use soap. Throw away the outer layer of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage. Wash fruits in the same manner and peel the outer covering if possible. For meats and poultry, trim the fat. Some residues concentrate in animal fat. 

Vegetables and fruits that have the highest pesticide residue are listed below in descending order. The first listed is the highest, then the second and so on.

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Nectarines-imported
  • Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Cucumbers
  • Blueberries-domestic
  • Potatoes

The group of vegetables and fruits shown to have the least amount of pesticide residue are:

  • Onion
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Avocado
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet Peas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Kiwifruit
  • Cantaloupe-domestic
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Watermelon
  • Mushrooms

Washing produce also helps to remove dirt and some veggie-washes have been shown to reduce exposure to salmonella and E-coli, but none have been shown to completely eliminate pesticide residue.


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