Is Organic Food Overrated?

by Stephanie Wood

Is Organic Food Overrated?

As controversy swirls over the nutritional value of going green, we give you the facts and fables to find out what's worth buying organic and what's not

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.

During pregnancy

Choosing organic during pregnancy depends on only one key factor: what you crave, says registered dietitian Bridget Swinney, author of the books Eating Expectantly, Baby Bites, and Healthy Food for Healthy Kids. She recommends that you keep a journal of what you eat over a period of about two weeks, then buy organic versions of the foods that top your list.

If you're a beef-eater, Dr. Greene suggests choosing grass-fed, organically raised cattle. It's leaner and healthier, and can have up to five times the amount of brain-building omega-3 fatty acids as regular beef. Though the cost of organic meat can be double that of regular, try treating it like a side dish and opt for smaller servings.

Also consider another source of organic protein that may be less expensive than beef: soy. But remember that despite its close association to healthy living, soy doesn't always equate organic. Eighty percent of the soybean crops grown today are genetically modified, which means the genetic code of the food has been altered in a lab to make it more weed- or bug-resistant. Dr. Greene says the problem is that no one really knows yet what impact genetically modified foods will have on our health and our farmlands. So make sure to check the packaging, and don't mistake an "all-natural" label on soy — or any other product — as a synonym for organic.

Finally, think about switching to organic milk. Pregnant women need to consume a lot of calcium, as much as 1,500 milligrams a day. The reason is that during pregnancy, the calcium transfer from mother to baby reaches 270 milligrams a day. For that reason, milk is one of Dr. Greene's top organic picks. And though the FDA maintains that all types of milk are equally safe, choosing organic means saying no to a whole chemical system of agriculture.

New moms

You might expect the nutrition advice for new moms to be the same as during pregnancy, and certainly the above suggestions still hold true. But there are a few more recommendations to keep in mind.

If you're breastfeeding, Breast milk provides your baby's source of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that's important to brain and vision development, so eating DHA-rich foods like salmon is important. Experts recommend you shoot for 300 to 500 milligrams of DHA a day. A serving of salmon (a six to eight ounce filet) packs that and more.

However, the debate over organic seafood is ongoing. Dr. Greene notes that the USDA has no classification yet for organic seafood. According to the FDA, pregnant and nursing women can safely eat 12 ounces, or two servings, a week of wild salmon, tilapia, shrimp, catfish, and cod. If you want to buy these items organic, look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo on the label, which certifies where the fish came from (farmed or wild).

Nursing moms should also consume lots of vitamin A. It's passed in the breast milk from mother to baby, and if you're not careful, mom's supply can get scarce. Vitamin A is found in rich red, orange, and yellow fruits and veggies. "In fact, one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your baby is to double your daily intake of colorful foods; have two servings at every meal and one at every snack," says Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy. If you choose to skip the organics, look for produce that says "vine-ripened" or "tree-ripened." They have more nutrients, Somer notes.

From 6 to 12 months

You're probably getting ready to make the transition to solids, if you haven't started already. The definitive answer about buying organic or conventional baby food will depend on whom you ask. If you were to query Jay Hoeckler, M.D., emeritus consultant with the Mayo Clinic, he'd say, "Organic baby food can limit your baby's exposure to pesticides and other potential contaminants in foods. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics says organic foods are no safer or more nutritious than are other foods." Organic baby food can also be considerably more expensive.

Now contact the Environmental Working Group, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to protect children from toxic chemicals in food, water, and other products, and the folks there would say there are still too many residual toxins in baby food — even if said levels are lower than the standards set by the USDA. Perhaps it's moms erring on the safe side that has inspired many organic baby food brands to sprout and succeed. There are a number of successful start-ups, among them Yummy Spoonfuls, Healthy Times, Jack's Harvest, and Plum Organics. Some established brands also have created their own organic offshoot (Gerber Organic).

Of course you can always make your own food, too, which at this stage requires simple purees. If you choose to be your baby's personal chef, it's always best to buy organic. That's because pound for pound, babies eat and drink more than adults, which means they tend to be exposed to a higher concentration of toxins than we are, says Dr. Greene.

From 1 year to 18 months

Once your baby is ready for whole milk, organic whole cow's milk or whole-bean soy milk are good places to start — for exactly the same reasons you might choose them in pregnancy. Environmental chemicals are stored in fat, and because high-fat whole milk is such a big part of a toddler's diet, it's best to go organic when a baby switches from breast milk or formula, says Swinney. Three other popular organic choices for toddlers are potatoes, apples, and ketchup, again because kids eat so much of them. Plus, organic ketchup has double the level of antioxidants, according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Davis.

And remember: eating green doesn't have to be an all-encompassing lifestyle chance. Your baby will thrive with a well-balanced healthy diet free of as many processed foods as possible, whether they're organic or not. The organic impact goes far beyond the dinner table, local grocery store and our children's well being. It's a cause for global longevity. Says Cummins, "We're not going to solve our public health crisis, we're not going to stabilize the climate, we're not going to be able to deal with more expensive fossil fuel energy unless the organic alternative becomes the norm again." It appears that preserving the environment is not unlike politics: every little vote for the future counts.

The Dirty Dozen

These fruits and veggies top the list for their pesticide load. Go "O" with those when you can.

1. Peaches
2. Apples
3. Sweet bell peppers
4. Celery
5. Nectarines
6. Strawberries
7. Cherries
8. Lettuce
9. Imported grapes
10. Pears
11. Spinach
12. Potatoes

Source: The Environmental Working Group