Organic Foods

If you’ve spent any time at your local grocery store in the last decade, you’ve undoubtably seen an emergence of “organic” foods. The term initially popped up on various fruits and vegetables, but has grown to include a variety of products from peanut butter to potato chips. My personal favorite product is organic Oreos. I thought this might be an internet hoax, but it’s listed on Nabisco’s website…

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Now, I’m not trying to insult the wonder that is the Oreo cookie. I all but worship them. (Ask my wife, and she’ll tell you that a common question in our home is “Who ate all the Oreos?” — usually asked while I innocently avoid all eye contact.) My point is that the available choices for organic foods have skyrocketed over the last few years. This is in part due to the obesity epidemic we’re facing as a nation, and a resulting call for fewer processed foods. However, there’s also a hefty premium for many of these products, which translates into a lot more $$$ for those involved.

Take a trip to your local Giant Eagle, and you’ll notice a gallon of skim milk goes for roughly $3.50, while a gallon of organic milk will set you back $7.00 — a 100% price increase! Again, I’m not criticizing a desire for organic products. But with so many choices available and parents asking for the pediatric perspective on organic foods, I was curious to see the latest research and recommendations.
For this topic, I reviewed the latest recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their most recent review of the literature is found in a 2012 article from the journal Pediatrics, entitled “Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages.”

Defining Organic Foods

Before I summarize the findings, first a few points on defining organic foods…

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the National Organic Program (NOP) that in 2002 set standards for labeling organic foods. These standards can vary depending on the type of food and how many ingredients are organic. But in general:

  • Natural = no artificial ingredients/color, minimally processed/altered
  • No hormones
  • No genetic modification (commonly seen as non-GMO on labels)
  • Crops must be harvested a certain way (avoid pesticides/herbicides, pull weeds mechanically, etc)
  • No antibiotic use
  • Vaccines and vitamin supplements for the animals are ok
  • Free range = poultry get some recreational time outside (five whole minutes per day…so generous!)

One important point: For this list of no’s, the article mentions exceptions ARE ALLOWED if the substance is on a national approved list.  It doesn’t mention what substances are on the list. Where this gets interesting is that there are ingredients in many of our foods today that other places such as Europe are like, “Um… No thanks.”  Google “Subway yoga mats,” and you’ll see articles for azodicarbonamide, also found in yoga mats, which the FDA notes is safe in low quantities based on available data.

Summary of the AAP Findings

  • Organic foods have been shown to expose consumers to fewer pesticides. (Note, however, that it’s not known whether this reduction has any clinical significance. In other words, it shows less exposure, but it doesn’t show whether that makes any meaningful difference in health benefits.
  • Most studies have shown conventional foods and organic foods have similar nutritional content. (A conventional apple, for instance, has roughly the same calories, vitamins, etc as an organic apple.)
  • -What seems to matter more is the quality of the soil, climate type, quality of feed for the animals, etc
  • NO well-performed studies are available to demonstrate that organic diets produce health benefits or disease protection.
  • Almost no bovine growth hormone (used to increase production of milk in cows) gets ingested by humans. (90% is eliminated by pasteurization, destroyed by your stomach acid). It also notes the growth hormone is species-specific. (In other words: it does nothing to humans).
  • Steroid concentrations (used to increase the amount of meat per animal) are higher in conventional animal products than in organic ones. To date, no reliable studies have clearly shown health concerns related to these increased steroid concentrations.
  • Organic animal products have been shown to carry less antibiotic resistant bacteria, compared to conventionally raised animal products. This is a big issue, as bacteria are becoming more resistant to antibiotics over time. (The article notes that 40-80% of antibiotics used in the US are used in food animals). The concern is not that you eat it, but that farmers become colonized with this bacteria, which then spread.
  • The article briefly discusses the potential environmental impact of organic food production vs conventional — believing that organic methods are better for the environment.  It also discusses whether organic food production methods are productive enough to meet current demands. (In short: the few studies available on this point are in conflict.)

The Disclaimer

This information was obtained from only one very reliable source dating to 2012. There is no doubt that some things have likely changed since then. As pediatricians, we rely heavily on the AAP’s findings and guidance, because they’re thoroughly peer-reviewed and considered the gold standard for pediatric practice. There are also a variety of sources on the internet that give varying views on the subject.  As with anything you read about on the internet (or in print), always be mindful of your source of information and its quality and reliability. Our goal — in the office, on social media, and especially in these Doctor’s Notes — is to give you the most accurate, reliable, and up-to-date information to empower you to make the best possible decisions possible for your child.

The Verdict

So what’s the correct answer? As you can probably tell after reading this, there really isn’t one.

There are still questions that need to be addressed and studies that need to be performed to support or refute some of the claims made for organic foods. What is 100%  without question is that the best decision you can make for your child is to provide and encourage a healthy/balanced diet with multiple servings of fruits and vegetables.

If you’re unable to provide your children with organic produce, don’t sweat it. Offering them a balance diet of conventional foods is one of the most important ways you can impact their health, and studies have yet to show any significant benefit to offering organic foods. If, on the other hand, you’re able to provide organic fruits, vegetables, and meats, this may help to reduce your child’s exposure to pesticides, artificial ingredients, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — all of which may be shown in future studies to offer health benefits and help prevent disease.

For a list of recommended organic products, visit:  http://www.ewg.org/foodnews

And, as always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. That’s why we’re here!

Dr. Chris Deskins is a former Kids Plus provider.