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IS Organic Food Healthier For Kids? Um, Yes. Duh.

Taylor Hengen Newman

I’m sure you’ve seen an article or two about the study out of Stanford by now. You know, the one about organic foods apparently not being more “healthy” (or so spun the media coverage) than their conventional counterparts? Yeah, well. That study -- and its subsequent media coverage -- missed a beat or two, and there’s been some smart pushback popping up that echoes my reasons for (still) choosing organic over conventional foods. Like the study’s author herself (ding-ding-ding!), I absolutely plan to continue buying local, organic produce for my family. And like the various journalists and commentators who've looked objectively, and through a big-picture lens, at the study’s findings (and, er, funding), I feel those findings confirm that doing so is more “healthy” for my family, my community, and our planet. No question, no contest.

The study showed, most notably, that Vitamins A, C and E show up at about the same levels in both organic and conventional produce, making them ostensibly the same from a nutritional point of view. (This is what got organic food cynics all excited, FYI). It also showed detectable pesticide residues, another factor examined between the two types of food in the study, were found in 7% of the organic produce, and 38% of the conventional produce, evaluated.

Finding comparable levels of three vitamins between conventional and organic food qualifies as ‘fun facts’ information in my mind, but not as reason to dub the two types of foods equally “healthy.” That pesticide residue was found at levels over five times higher in conventional produce than in organic is a far more meaningful takeaway. And although only three studies (out of those the Stanford study reviewed) found pesticide residue exceeding maximum allowed limits in the European Union on organic or conventional produce,  the significance of the pesticide differential isn't, for me, mitigated by that info nugget.

Here’s why: pesticides are amassing in our environment, and our bodies, at unprecedented levels, and the effects of their long-term build-up, and in increasingly complicated combinations, are mostly unknown. But we do know that these chemicals negatively affect our health, causing cancers, nervous system damage, and even changes to our DNA. In a nutshell: pesticides are bad news bears.

Babies and children are especially susceptible to their negative effects. A Montreal and Harvard University study from May 2010 showed that “exposure to pesticide residues on vegetables and fruit may double a child’s risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that can cause inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity in children.” And, a July 2007 study conducted by researchers at the Public Health Institute, the California Department of Health Services, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health “found a six-fold increase in risk factor for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for children of women who were exposed to organochlorine pesticides.” No doubt these studies are the tip of the iceberg, too, and I’m not about to volunteer my kid as a human petri dish by way of our dinner table.

This stuff is a bummer to discuss -- but hey, we're all adults here, right? -- and although we can’t individually prevent industrialized agriculture from leaching chemicals into our soil, water and air (and thus, eventually, into our bodies), we can control what lands on our families’ plates. We can limit our kids’ exposure to, and overall intake of, pesticides in this way alone. Purchasing food that hasn’t been grown with the use of harmful pesticides also places a vote, by way of our wallets (arguably more influential than any other type of vote in America today), for keeping food production practices clean.

So, yeah, pesticides are really more at issue than vitamins when it comes to “healthy” organic or conventional foods, and organic foods come out, a la the Stanford study, on top. But in a larger context, I think we need to look at more than just organic labels when evaluating what food options are most healthy. Pesticides’ negative impact on the environment counts against them as much as their direct impact on our health does. Let me break this down: environmental health = our health. (When the planet goes, people, we go, too.) Likewise, organic ground beef shipped in from Uruguay -- i.e. the rainforest -- is not ‘healthy’ just because it’s organic, at least in terms of its impact on our environment… and therefore on all of us.

There’s also been some recent uproar around Big Agriculture's ties to the government bodies that regulate organic labelling; there’s a lot of cash at stake in even the organic foods industry -- Organic foods make up 12% of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales -- and the big dogs want in, you know? As a result of this involvement, there’s been some question raised as to how well those regulating entities are doing their jobs, and how many pesticides are now getting through the ‘organic’ gate. However deep that involvement runs and however real the scandals are (or aren't), supporting small, local farmers is the best way to avoid this mess altogether. By buying locally, you’ll know where your food is coming from, and where your money’s going, and you can ask the farmer directly if he or she uses chemical pesticides at all.

Other post-Stanford study commentary has highlighted the issue of Genetically Modified foods (which must be labeled in Europe, but not in the US); foods labeled as organic cannot, by law, contain any GM ingredients. Health implications abound on this topic, too. But whether attention is turned toward pesticides, our bodies, our environment, or our local food options, I’m honestly encouraged to see the conversation continuing, and expanding in each of these directions, rather than ending at “Organic foods aren’t more healthy, so there!” It’s just not as simple as that.

It doesn’t behoove us to oversimplify, and distort, a study’s findings in the name of shutting a conversation – one that’s often seen more as a class war than a real health, and human rights, issue -- down. It might be tempting to try and justify the cheap, easy production (and purchase) of food by ignoring its big-picture effects on our health and our planet. But the big picture matters, whether in terms of struggling local economies, rising childhood cancer rates, or this planet’s potential to sustain and nurture our kids – and their kids – when they’re grown. In this kind of big-picture context, the Stanford study showed what other studies have shown, and continue to reflect: organic foods are more healthy, for our bodies and our world, however their vitamin C content compares.

What do you think of the Stanford study’s findings? Does your family eat organic food? Why or why not? Leave a comment!

PS. I love that food can fill our bellies and solve worldwide crises! Click here to read about a recent change on my family’s table in the name of both objectives.