Like many parents, I sometimes struggle with what to feed my kids. Between picky eaters (my five-year-old only eats red peppers, never green) and concerns about nutrition, it can be difficult to find healthy and nourishing foods that your kids will eat. Then, to make matters even more complicated, we parents are faced with the task of deciding whether these nutritious foods must also be organic. My very selective daughter has made raspberries her fruit of choice (by which I mean, these are the only fruit she will eat), and for a good part of the year, these are expensive little berries. If I buy the organic ones, there goes my weekly grocery budget.
I want to fuel my children’s bodies with healthy food. But does this mean that I need to go that extra mile (and expense; organic food costs about 50 percent more on average than conventionally grown food) to buy organic? To what extent do kids really need or benefit from eating organic food—and to what extent is it a marketing ploy aimed at making my task of parenting even more confusing? Here's a look at the science on organic food along with my take on which items, if any, make the most sense to buy organically if you can.
What makes a food organic?
"USDA organic" foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that regulate factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. For a product to be labeled organic, it must have been grown on soil that has had no prohibited substance (such as most synthetic fertilizers or pesticides) applied to it for three years prior to harvest. Organic meat must be from animals that are raised in environments that accommodate their natural behavior (such as munching on grass in a pasture), are fed 100 percent organic food, and are not given routine antibiotics or hormones.
What the science says about organic food
Though some studies have found that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of some nutrients such as vitamin C, most research has found little or no difference. Organic plant foods do contain significantly lower levels of synthetic pesticides, and studies have shown that children who switched to an organic diet had reduced levels of pesticide in their urine. However, while the idea of pesticides in our bodies sounds terrible and unsafe, there is no scientific consensus that the small amount found in conventionally grown food has any effect on our health. So it's unclear whether spending extra money on organic produce makes us, or our kids, any safer.
Organic meat is another story. If you can afford it, it may be worth the extra money both for your family’s health and for the environment. Nonorganic livestock are typically given antibiotics to make them grow faster and help them avoid illness in crowded pens. Those antibiotics are excreted in the animals’ urine and feces, and end up in our water supply and soil. In fact, so much ends up in our environment that there’s growing recognition that the overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock contributes to antibiotic resistance. The antibiotics that used to work on certain bacteria are no longer working. This, in turn, raises the risk that drug-resistant strains of bacteria will emerge in the environment and then infect humans.
The meat we buy and eat typically has very low residual levels of hormones and antibiotics. Still, some researchers are concerned. Studies are underway to learn whether the antibiotics in conventionally produced meat and milk can affect human hormone levels and contribute to early puberty in young girls.
Advice for health-conscious parents
If your primary concern is nutrition, you may be better off buying locally grown food rather than relying on the organic label. Because of shorter travel distances from field to table, locally grown food is often fresher and may retain more nutrients. In addition, consumers who buy local food tend to make healthier food choices in general. When you purchase locally grown food, you are also contributing to your local economy and small businesses. An added bonus: Many local farms follow organic practices, including raising crops without synthetic pesticides, but don’t bother getting the expensive certification required for an organic label. If you can, ask the farmer or produce seller about the way in which the produce was grown. You may find that you're getting organic food without having to pay organic prices.
If you do want to buy organic food and are on a limited budget, spend your “organic dollars” on produce that tends to have the highest concentrations of pesticide residue, typically fruits and vegetables that are not peeled before eating. The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues when grown conventionally. In 2016, the list included strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, grapes, cherries, celery, spinach, kale, collard greens, tomatoes, and peppers.
Bottom line: I, for one, am not going to throw good money after organic bananas—I can peel away the residue-containing skin. But I will spend the extra cash on meat and milk from animals that weren’t given antibiotics. Remember, there’s no right answer. And don’t fret if you can’t afford organic or locally grown food. It’s much more important for your children’s health to make sure they eat plenty of fruits and vegetables—no matter how the produce is grown.