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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

What Parents Should Know About Organic Foods

November 14, 2012

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

It's a question more and more parents are asking themselves: Should I buy organic foods? Are they worth the extra money?

It's clear that organic farming is better for the earth. It's a more sustainable way of farming. And it uses fewer chemicals. If cost weren't an issue, we should all probably buy organic foods and encourage more food suppliers to use organic methods.

The problem is that most families can't afford to go all organic — it would increase their grocery bills too much. In a recent report the American Academy of Pediatrics said that if the food industry sets its mind to it, there are ways to decrease the cost of organic foods. Hopefully it will.

In the meantime, here's what you should know when deciding what to buy in the store:

  1. Nutrients: Studies have not shown any significant differences in the nutritional value of organic foods over conventionally produced foods.
  2. Pesticides: We know that pesticides aren't good for us, and conventional foods have more pesticides than organic foods (that's part of the definition). The tricky part is figuring out how much pesticide really is too much. There's a lot we really don't know about the dangers of the chemicals farmers use to keep bugs off our food. Here are some things we do know:
    • Pregnant women and young children are most sensitive to the effects of pesticides. If you are pregnant or have a young child, you may want to buy organic as much as you can.
    • Rice has a lot of arsenic, a poisonous chemical. Some brands are worse than others. To learn more and to read recommendations on how much rice and rice products children and adults should eat, check out the Consumer Reports article on the topic.
    • Some conventional produce has more pesticides than others. The Environmental Working Group has a list called the "Dirty Dozen." These are fruits and vegetables that you should try to buy organic as much as possible: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines (imported), grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries (domestic), potatoes, green beans and kale. (These last two foods were added after the original list came out.)
    • The Environmental Working Group calls some produce the "Clean 15." These are much lower in pesticides: onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe (domestic), sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelon, mushrooms and mangos
  3. Organic milk: Pesticides don't get into milk in any real quantities. The bovine growth hormone used to make cows bigger is usually destroyed by pasteurization and our stomach acids. And what's left over doesn't affect us. Cows are also given estrogen, but the amount that ends up in milk isn't enough to cause trouble (breast milk has more estrogen than cow's milk).
  4. Meats: Animals are given antibiotics to make them grow bigger. These antibiotics kill off weaker bacteria, leaving strong ones behind. If you cook the meat well and wash your hands, you are unlikely to catch any infections from your meat. But meat is increasingly becoming a source of these bacteria. This can cause real problems for people with weakened immune systems. So, try to buy antibiotic-free meat, if you can afford it. You'll also be supporting those farmers who don't use antibiotics. But if you can't and need to make decisions based solely on your family's health, don't worry about not buying organic meats.

The more you learn, the better. Read the AAP's report and talk to your doctor about the healthiest choices for your child and your family.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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