Are Organics Important for Your Baby?
The organic foods industry has grown at an unprecedented rate over the last decade. Organic retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are constantly opening new locations—despite a still-sour economy—and even Walmart and other conventional stores are offering organic options. Plus, most people seem convinced that organic is the way to go if you want your family to be healthy, fit and environmentally friendly. But when it comes to your baby's health, are these products really worth their higher prices?
Nutrition and Value
One of the most common claims regarding organic fruits and vegetables is that they're more nutrient-dense. Unfortunately, experts rarely delve into the details. "Nutrients" can be calorie-containing compounds like carbs, proteins and fats, or they can be vitamins, minerals and other non-caloric essentials.
So, which nutrients are you actually missing if you buy conventional? None, according to Melissa Dobbins, national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She says the term "organic" refers not to any type of product, but to a specific set of farming guidelines. An organic apple will have the same amounts of sugar, fiber and other macronutrients as its conventional counterpart. As for vitamins and minerals, Dobbins points to a recent Stanford study which showed no significant differences between organic and conventional produce.
Does that mean organics are bad? Not at all, says Dobbins, who says she would never dissuade someone from choosing organic foods. Environmental concerns, farming practices and pesticide problems are all valid reasons to spend a little more. It's just that you're not "missing out" on any essential nutrients if you stick to conventional.
It's no secret that conventional crops are sprayed with a variety of synthetic pesticides. And, if there's one thing on which most doctors and dieticians agree, it's that harmful chemicals are especially bad for babies. Bridget Swinney, author of Eating Expectantly, Baby Bites and Health Food for Healthy Kids, notes that "pound for pound, babies and toddlers eat more than adults," and that environmental chemicals have the greatest impacts during critical periods of development.
The real question then is whether organic farming methods are necessary to reduce pesticide-related risks. Dobbins says they're not, and that virtually all conventional produce already falls within the Environmental Protection Agency's limits for pesticide residues. In fact, she even says the so-called "dirty dozen"—the 12 most pesticide-heavy foods in the nation—aren’t cause for concern.
Some organics advocates believe the EPA's guidelines aren't stringent enough, however. Melinda Hemmelgarn, registered dietician and host of the KC-syndicated Food Sleuth Radio, says that even tiny amounts of pesticide residues can harm embryos and infants. Citing an observational study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, she also says certain pesticides have been linked to ADHD, autism and other developmental disorders. Still, conscientious consumers should note that these links aren't causal, and that researchers have not proven that common pesticides lead to growth defects.
Food writer Michael Pollan is famous for saying, "You are what you eat." Most shoppers focus first on organic produce, but animal products deserve at least as much attention. Dietician Juliana Hever says that animals store toxins in their fat, and those toxins will continually build up as they age. Factory-farmed animals will thus contain more synthetic hormones, antibiotics and other additives than pastured, organically-fed animals. Even the aforementioned Stanford study showed that organic chicken and pork contain less antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and that organic milk contains more heart-healthy Omega-3 fats.
It's important to understand some different terms, though. Any meat or milk labeled "organic" must be free of antibiotics and added growth hormone, but that doesn't mean it was grass-fed or pastured. Likewise, meat that's "hormone-free" or "antibiotic-free" isn't necessarily organic. If you want to be sure you're buying the most nutritious meat possible, ask your butcher about the animals' diets and living conditions. Ideally, you'll get pastured chickens and grass-fed beef and dairy. It's the unhealthy, corn-rich factory diets that cause livestock to require antibiotics in the first place.
What about breast milk? After all, it might be the "animal" product your baby consumes more than anything else. Dietician and lactation consultant Megan Mignot says an organic diet isn't too important for quality milk. While some conventional chemicals might make it through to your baby, "the benefits of breast milk still far outweigh any risk of pesticides." Heather Stouffer, KC native and CEO of the organics company Mom Made Meals, likewise says that "nature is forgiving." Most of the research on maternal diets and breast milk quality shows little correlation between the two.
David LaMartina is a Kansas City-based freelance health and food writer. He can be reached at davidlamartina.com.