Organic food is a controversial subject that brings up many emotions, particularly when it comes to feeding children. There is a “halo effect” around organic foods: people automatically assume if something is organic, it is inherently healthier. But is that really the case? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently conducted an extensive review of the research to answer this question, with some surprising findings.
Organic Dairy vs. Conventional Dairy
The AAP found that organic and conventional dairy products are nutritionally similar. There is no health benefit associated with drinking organic dairy. Many parents cite concern with bovine growth hormone (GH), which is sometimes used with conventional dairy, as a reason for choosing organic dairy. Research shows, however, that bovine GH has no effect on humans. Furthermore, the steroids given to cattle to promote growth do not affect children. In fact, the concentration of hormones like estrogen and estradiol in organic and conventional milk was the same and only increased with the fat content of the milk.
Another common concern is the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics with animals and its effect on drug-resistant bacteria that can affect humans. Organic farming practices do not include nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics and could therefore potentially reduce the number of human diseases caused by drug-resistant bacteria.
Nutritional Difference in Organic vs. Conventional Produce
There is a great deal of variability that accounts for differences in the nutritional content of produce, such as the region in which it is grown, soil characteristics, maturity of plant at harvesting and storage before testing. Some studies show that some organic produce contains more vitamin C and phosphorus and less nitrates than their conventional counterparts. However, there were limitations with these studies and it is not known if the differences are really meaningful for children’s health. Therefore, a review of the studies cannot conclusively say there is a difference in the nutrient content of organic and conventional produce. Better studies need to be designed that account for all of the variables to determine if there is a meaningful difference. For now, it is best to eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Pesticide Residue in Organic vs. Conventional Produce
Studies show there is less pesticide residue on organic produce compared to conventional produce, and a diet of mainly organic produce does lower children’s pesticide exposure. At this time, however, research does not show any negative health consequences associated with greater pesticide exposure in conventional produce. Rinsing produce in water also helps to minimize the residue. Eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic, still carries more health benefits than avoiding them if organic is not available or affordable.
Organic food costs on average 10-40 percent more than conventional. There are other reasons people may choose organic over conventional than those stated here, such as the impact on the environment and how being selective about what to buy organic can minimize cost differences. However, in terms of health, research at this time does now show enough demonstrable differences for choosing organic over conventional products.
The bottom line, according to the AAP, is that children and adults need to eat more fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains as outlined in MyPlate recommendations.