Wondering if it’s necessary to buy organic food for kids? Confused about common nutrition terms? In this post, our pediatricians weigh in with the most recent research.
As a parent, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about food—what to make for dinner, what to pack for lunch, what exactly qualifies as a nutritious snack. As a nurse practitioner and former dietitian, I am often asked these same questions by other parents and caregivers. The answers seem to be getting more and more complicated; it isn’t a simple matter of which foods are “healthy” anymore. The plethora of options, such as organic or conventional, cage-free or farm fresh, non-GMO or produced with genetic engineering, can make things confusing!
There are many factors involved in our food choices: taste, environmental concerns, cost, nutrition, and convenience, to name a few. In other words, there will never be a one-size-fits-all best option for everyone, but my hope is that some of this information about current topics in nutrition, especially those popular “organic” terms, will help guide you towards the best choices for your family.
What’s In a Name? Your Guide to Popular “Organic” Terms
Food marketing has introduced us to many new terms in recent years, but what do they all mean? Here is a breakdown of some commonly used buzzwords:
- GMO This abbreviation stands for “genetically modified organism” and describes when genes from one organism are transferred to another organism to produce a desired outcome; GMOs can also be referred to as genetically engineered, bioengineered, or biotechnology-derived foods.
- Farm-Fresh This term is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning it can be used however the food manufacturer sees fit; it does not necessarily mean anything about where the food came from or how fresh it is.
- Natural This is defined by the USDA as food that has no added ingredients like artificial colors or artificial flavors and that has been “minimally processed” so as not to change it from the way it was in its raw state.
- Cage-Free The animals have not been kept in cages; it does not imply that they have extra living space, outdoor time, or a different diet than other chickens.
- Free-Range The animals have not been kept in cages and they have had access (such as a small door) to the outdoors at least 5 minutes per day; it does not imply anything about the actual amount of time spent outdoors or about the diet they have been fed.
- No Hormones Just as it sounds, no hormones have been given to the animals.
- No Antibiotics Just as it sounds, no antibiotics have been given to the animals.
- Conventional Food produced non-organically. Conventional products may have been grown with antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and may be genetically modified.
- Organic The food must have been produced without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic modification/bioengineering, antibiotics, or growth hormones. The farmers must also use practices that conserve ecological resources and maintain or improve land and water quality.
- 100% Organic The food must be produced with all organic ingredients.
- USDA Organic The food must be produced with at least 95% organic ingredients.
- Made with Organic Ingredients The food must be produced with at least 70% organic ingredients.
- Pasture-Raised Used when the animal spent the majority of its time outdoors and generally implies the animal had a more varied diet, but does not necessarily mean that the animal was raised organically.
- Grass-Fed To earn this certification, the animal must have eaten a 100% foraged diet, never been confined to a feedlot, never fed antibiotics or hormones, and born and raised on American family farms.
Is Organic Food More Nutritious?
So, is organic food more nutritious? The answer is not necessarily. After extensively reviewing the current research, experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have concluded that there is no consistent nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce, milk, or meat. However, research is ongoing to evaluate whether, over time, organic produce will universally have enhanced nutrient content than conventionally grown produce. The difference would come from organic farming’s ability to improve soil quality over time, imparting more vitamin and minerals to the produce itself. There is already evidence that grass-fed and pasture-raised animals produce eggs, milk, and meat that are higher in antioxidants and have a healthier balance of fats (specifically a higher omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio) than conventionally-raised animals. This difference is explained by the healthier diet and lifestyle these animals are provided.
There is good evidence that organic foods lead to less pesticide exposure for children, though organic food is not necessarily pesticide-free as it can be contaminated by residues carried in wind or water. Certain pesticides have been linked with adverse effects in children and adults. Whether buying organic or conventional foods, pesticide exposure can be minimized by thoroughly washing all produce before eating it and sticking to domestically grown rather than imported produce. The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, commonly referred to as the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen”. By prioritizing organic when buying Dirty Dozen produce, families can get the biggest bang for their buck in terms of minimizing pesticide exposure.
|The Clean Fifteen||The Dirty Dozen|
|1. Avocados||1. Strawberries|
|2. Sweet Corn||2. Spinach|
|3. Pineapples||3. Kale|
|4. Sweat Peas Frozen||4. Nectarines|
|5. Onions||5. Apples|
|6. Papayas||6. Grapes|
|7. Eggplants||7. Peaches|
|8. Asparagus||8. Cherries|
|9. Kiwis||9. Pears|
|10. Cabbage||10. Tomatoes|
|11. Cauliflower||11. Celery|
|12. Cantaloupe||12. Potatoes|
|13. Broccoli||13. Hot Peppers|
|15. Honeydew Melon||From https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/|
Concern about the use of hormones in conventional foods causes some families to opt for organic. Yet research does not support that these hormones cause health problems in people. About 90% of the growth hormones often used in conventional dairy cows are destroyed when the milk is pasteurized, and the remainder is degraded by the acid in our stomachs. Even if some managed to be absorbed beyond that, they are biologically inactive in humans, meaning they would have no effect in our bodies. The sex hormones like estrogen found in conventionally produced dairy and beef are present in much smaller concentrations than those naturally occurring in human bodies. Despite investigation, research to date has not shown that these low levels are factors in early-onset of puberty or increasing rates of disease, instead pointing to certain chemicals (including some pesticides) and plastics in our environment as the most likely cause.
The widespread use of antibiotics in the conventional food industry does raise some concerns. Because antibiotics are used to promote animal growth rather than treat disease, there is growing resistance to antibiotics among organisms found in our animal food sources. These drug-resistant organisms can cause disease and even death in humans. By choosing meat and dairy from organic or antibiotic-free sources, the risk of drug-resistant human disease could be reduced. No matter which meat or dairy you choose, the Centers for Disease Control recommends following basic food safety guidelines such as hand and surface washing after contact with raw meat, avoiding unpasteurized milk, and cooking raw meat and eggs to safe internal temperatures.
For many families, the idea of eating genetically modified food feels questionable. For centuries farmers have been breeding crops to achieve desirable colors, tastes, and other features. Now scientists have the ability to do this in a lab, moving single genes from one species to another. While many opponents object from an environmental standpoint, there are actually some nutritional benefits to bioengineering. One example is golden rice, a grain genetically modified to contain high levels of vitamin A. It can be grown in developing countries where vitamin A deficiencies have historically killed hundreds of thousands of children each year. Another example is genetic modifications that make plants insect-resistant, which decreases pesticide use and ingestion. The FDA does rigorous testing of all GMO food products before they reach the supermarket shelves, and there is no evidence suggesting that GMO foods trigger more allergies or negative health effects than non-GMO foods.
The Bottom Line
Our children should be eating healthy diets full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein, whether those foods are organic or conventional. While more research may shed light on different advantages or disadvantages of organic versus conventional food down the line, we are already sure that such healthy diets prevent disease and promote healthy lives for our kids. As Janet Silverstein, MD, FAAP, a member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition explained, “Many families have a limited food budget, and we do not want families to choose to consume smaller amounts of more expensive organic foods and thus reduce their overall intake of healthy foods like produce.”
Hopefully the information here has helped prepare you to make the choices that are best for your family. I’ll end with a few links for more information about the topics discussed, as well as information about other factors that may help inform your family’s food choices.