There it was, plodding across the CNN news crawl, seven words, one million implications: "Organic food no healthier than regular food." The item referenced a study released in late July by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), an independent government bureau in the UK. After analyzing 50 years of research, the authors concluded that "we did not find any important differences in nutrient content between organically and conventionally produced foods."
The backlash was swift. The Organic Consumers Association, a grassroots organization with more than 850,000 members and volunteers, immediately released a statement calling the study "faulty, misleading... and methodically flawed." Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a Boulder, Colorado non-profit that helps consumers, policy makers, and the media understand the benefits of organic products, stated that the FSA was "downplaying positive findings in favor of organic food."
This rift cuts through the center of a massive, skyrocketing industry. Sales of organic food and beverages in the United States leapt from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007, an annual growth rate of 20 percent. But strip away the eight-figure revenues and arguments between scientists and activists, farmers and policy wonks, and you have the same questions and concerns that arise at dinner tables and grocery stores across the country: are organics really better for my family? Are they worth the extra, well, green? For new moms, who scrutinize every bite they take and every spoonful they dish out, is splurging on a few organic foods the right thing to do? And if so, which products should I buy?
While all foods in the United States have been scrutinized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there's no question that organics eliminate a lot of unnecessary and dangerous toxins from our lives. They reduce the intake of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics commonly used in agriculture, notes Alan Greene, M.D., author of Raising Baby Green: The Earth Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Care (and yes, that's his real name). Still, neither the FDA nor the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) claims that organic foods are more nutritious. "To a pediatrician, making sure your baby receives a balanced diet is what is preferable," notes pediatrician Steven Abelowitz, M.D., medical director of Coastal Kids Pediatric Group in Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel, California.
But what exactly is organic? For starters, organic products must be produced without conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. In addition, government-approved certifiers must inspect the farm where the products are grown or raised to make sure the USDA's organic rules are being followed.
But for farmers like Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, organic is simply about getting back to how it was. Speaking to an audience of organic farmers in La Farge, Wisconsin in July, the pony-tailed Cummins said, "I was born in 1946. In 1946, 42 percent of our fruits and veggies were grown in our backyards, or in schoolyards and urban gardens. When you went to a grocery store, most of the stuff you bought had been produced within in a 100-mile radius. The food was pretty pure, and it was organic. My grandfather was an organic farmer in East Texas. But he didn't know the word organic. He was just doing was his parents had taught him."
While all this may sound wholesome and nostalgic, the truth is there's a lot of information out there, and save for a few tiny stickers or labels with fine print, we're given little direction regarding what's worth buying organic and what's not. For starters, foods labeled as "natural," "hormone-free," and "free range" are not always organic. Whether you're pregnant, nursing, or introducing table foods to your baby, use these guidelines to help determine what's right for your family. Keep in mind that going organic doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Dr. Greene suggests doing a little at a time, based on what your budget allows.