Determining Between Conventional and Organic Foods

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Your child’s relationship with food is a critical component for a lifetime of good health.  It is your child’s job to eat healthy portions of food good for his or her body.  It is your job to give your child the opportunity to eat healthy portions of food good for his or her body. While these principles are straight-forward, what it means to choose healthy food is not always so simple.  In addition to monitoring nutritional content parents must now make a variety of other choices.  Do I need to buy organic food?  Is “GMO” food something to avoid?  Is “local” food better?  Putting aside the social, economic and political dimensions of these choices, below is what we know about the health implications.

Conventional food is grown using modern fertilizing techniques and pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.  These are often synthetic.  Organic foods must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients, which means that they have been produced on farms that have not used ionizing radiation, genetic engineering and most synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.  “No antibiotics” labeling can be seen on red meat and poultry where antibiotics have not been used in raising cattle or poultry.  No hormones are allowed in raising hogs or poultry, but a “no hormones” label can be used on beef which means that no hormones were used in raising the cattle.  “GMO” or “genetically modified” labels are for food that is from animals or plants where genetic engineering, as opposed to selective breeding, has been used to introduce genes/traits.

1) Is organic food better for you than conventional food?

There is almost no consistent evidence that organic food is higher in nutrients than conventionally produced food.  There is some evidence that organic chicken and milk may have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.  However, this may have more to do with many other aspects of farming than the organic/conventional distinction such as the difference between smaller or larger farms.

2) Is local food better for you?  Is genetically modified food better or worse for you?

There is no evidence that food grown locally is on the whole any better for you than food grown somewhere else.  However, if you’ve ever gone peach picking vs. picking up a peach at a grocery store, you’ve likely noticed there is often a difference in taste.  There is no evidence that genetically modified foods are any healthier or less healthy for you than other foods unless certain specific genes have been incorporated into the food.  For example, there is a genetically modified rice that has had beta carotene introduced into it, leading to a potentially healthier version of rice.

3) Does eating conventionally grown food expose you to more pesticides? 

Yes it does.  Many conventionally grown foods have pesticide residues on them, as reflected in results of governmental testing available via the Pesticide Residue Program.  Children fed diets of conventionally grown food do have more pesticide residues in their urine than children fed organic diets.

4) Are the pesticides found on conventionally grown foods in this country harmful?

This is a much more difficult question to answer.  At the target levels set by the Pesticide Residue Program, there is no good evidence for harm.  There is very little data to suggest there is any danger.  One study showed that urine levels of malathion residues, an organophosphate pesticide, were correlated with attention problems in children.  Three foods, conventionally grown strawberries, celery and frozen blueberries, consistently have the highest levels of malathion residue, as compared to government guidelines.  At the same time there was a study published that demonstrated that higher though still very low levels of urine pesticide residues in a group of 2 year olds was associated surprisingly with higher scores on a developmental exam.

5) Is there a difference in bacterial contamination between organic and conventionally grown crops?

Studies show no significant difference in the levels of contamination between organic and conventionally produced products.  However, bacterial contamination of conventionally grown crops has a higher rate of drug-resistant bacteria.

6) So where does all of this leave us?

There is little evidence to suggest that organic food is healthier than conventional food.  There is good evidence that organic food leads to less exposure to pesticides.  However, whether that low level exposure to pesticides has any effects on children is up for debate.  No problems have been identified conclusively.  What is certain is that organic foods are typically more expensive than conventionally grown foods.  Families need to take this fact into consideration.  Given the weak link between pesticide residues in food and children’s health and the strong link between available reading material and intellectual development for instance it probably isn’t worth spending so much on organic food that you can’t buy books.

Families have to decide what level of risk is reasonable for them and act accordingly.  With fruits and vegetables, I usually recommend the first level of “going organic”, which is to purchase organic strawberries, frozen blueberries and celery since they have the highest levels of malathion, and are correlated with some neurodevelopmental problems at levels seen in children consuming a conventional diet.  The next level would be to follow the advice of many consumer groups such as the Environmental Working Group’s “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides” which suggests buying organic versions of thin-skinned fruits and vegetables since much of the residue is on the peel and sometimes can not be washed off.  Finally a family could buy exclusively organic produce or even exclusively organic foods in total.

The decision to purchase organic vs. conventional foods is family dependent.  There is very limited evidence that organic foods provide any true medical benefit.  However, there are many other reasons to consider organic foods which will justify their cost to some families.

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John Madden, M.D.By Dr. John Madden, Esse Health Pediatrician
Esse Health Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine at Watson Road
9930 Watson Road, Suite 100
St. Louis, MO 63126
Phone: 314-965-5437