Should Kids Eat Organic? The Great Debate

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It used to be that if you got your kid to eat a stalk of broccoli, you were winning as a parent. But with the organic produce boom, which generated more than $11 billion in sales in 2013 (with no signs of slowing), many parents feel pressure to join the organic food movement. Almost 80 percent of families are eating organic and nearly 50 percent say their biggest reason for doing so is they believe that it’s healthier for their children, according to a 2011 survey by the Organic Trade Commission,

But is organic food really better for kids?

The Research

There are numerous benefits to eating organic. For starters, in order to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s criteria for organic food, farms don’t use synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, genetically-modified ingredients, irradiation, or sewage sludge as fertilizer. Organic farmers also don’t feed their livestock antibiotics or growth hormones, instead providing them with 100 percent organic feed, as well as access to the outdoors. Organic food is also free of preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and colors.

Eating organic can also help limit exposure to residues from pesticides, which may increase the risk of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. That said, the pesticides in conventionally-grown foods don’t exceed safety levels, reports the Mayo Clinic. It’s also worth noting that organic produce isn’t “pesticide-free.” Organic farmers just use natural pesticides, rather than the synthetic ones used in conventional farming.

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Contrary to popular belief, organic food doesn’t have a leg up when it comes to nutrition. The one exception: Stanford University researchers found that organic milk had higher levels of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, but the amount isn’t considered clinically significant. 

And although some people swear that organic food tastes better, blind taste-tests prove otherwise. When people were given a variety of organic and conventionally-grown produce, including grapefruit, grapes, carrots, spinach and tomatoes, they couldn’t differentiate between the two types, according to a study published in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture.

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Organic also typically costs more—up to 57 percent higher—than conventional produce. And it tends to spoil faster because it’s not treated with waxes or preservatives. So those expensive purchases can end up in the trash before your family has a chance to eat them.

What the Experts Say

“While studies in recent years have delivered a decidedly mixed message about the healthfulness of organic food, those on both sides of the debate generally agree that organic produce typically contains fewer pesticides than conventional produce, and that people may be able to reduce or eliminate agricultural chemicals from their bodies by adopting an organic diet,” Chensheng Lu, PhD, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at the Harvard School of Public Health, tells the Wall Street Journal.

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Others argue that more research is needed. “While it’s true that organic fruits and vegetables in general contain fewer traces of these chemicals, we can’t draw conclusions about what that means for health as there haven’t been any long-term studies comparing the relationship between exposure to pesticides from organic versus nonorganic foods and adverse health outcomes,” Janet H. Silverstein, MD, professor of endocrinology at the University of Florida tells the Wall Street Journal.

However, while the debate rages on, some say it’s distracting us from the bigger issue—namely, that children and adults need to consume more fruits and vegetables any way they can.

What the Parents Say

“Eating organic is important because so much is genetically modified these days. The companies putting these foods on shelves are not concerned with my kids’ health and nutrition, so I have to be. If I don’t buy organic, I at least try to buy local.” —Jennifer B.

“The real benefit to organic is the lack of chemical pesticides, which can’t be rinsed off with a splash of water before consumption. That said, organic is expensive so I eat regular veggies. What’s more important is that you eat whole, unprocessed, low sugar foods that contain good fats.” —Christopher S.

“I would love to feed my kids organic but it’s not always practical and available. It’s also expensive and I don’t want to spend $10 for three organic grapes. So I buy it if I can, but I won’t guilt-trip myself if I don’t.” —Olga O’Donnell

The Bottom Line

It’s more important to consume any type of fruits and vegetables, than none at all. If you’d like to eat organic produce, choose apples, peaches, and nectarines, which in conventional forms, contain high levels of pesticide residue. And buy conventional produce with low pesticide levels, such as avocados, sweet corn and asparagus.  Also, check out The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” a list of produce that contains the most pesticides and its counterpart, the “Clean 15.” 

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