So is organic really better for kids? Conflicting headlines from recent published reports make it hard for parents to decide. New studies from Stanford University and the University of Florida attempt to analyze the current state of research looking at two very different matters—nutritional content in organic versus conventional food and the potential health effects of substances used in farming.
In general, organic food and food grown using synthetic chemicals tend to be pretty comparable when it comes to traditional nutrient profiles, with the exception of organic milk, which boasts higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Organic food does have an edge when it comes to antioxidant-rich phytonutrients, but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how these plant compounds may protect us from cancer and other ailments.
What is clear from both the Stanford study that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September and the University of Florida review published in the journal Pediatrics this week is that organic systems help protect against exposure to hard-to-kill, antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA. That's because organic bans the use of these drugs in animal products, while conventional farming allows farmers to routinely feed these drugs to healthy animals. The bacteria "wise up" and learn how to outsmart the drugs, many of which are vitally important for humans.
The issue of how pesticides affect our children is more complicated. "In our research, we've observed relationships between early prenatal exposures and poor developmental outcomes in children up to 7 years old," explains Asa Bradman, PhD, associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at University of California, Berkeley. Dozens of other studies also find a link between low-level exposures and an increased risk of childhood problems like ADHD, autism, low IQ, and even cancer. But these are observational studies, Bradman points out, meaning scientists are measuring things in the population and then looking at what happens. They offer clues but don't serve as definitive proof, which is why these studies sometimes seem confusing. The type of study that would bear more evidence isn't ethical because it would involve intentionally exposing children to toxic compounds, the way scientists do rats, mice, and other laboratory animals.
The current pesticide situation in some ways resembles the early studies looking at the effects of cigarettes on human health—the first indications that cigarettes were harmful to human health were born out of observational studies, but it took many more years of research to prove it to be true. For parents, this means they can either wait for the data to pan out or practice the precautionary principle and try their best to protect their children from the agricultural chemicals that appear to be causing problems in some kids. "If parents want to apply the precautionary principle, then a choice they might make is to choose organic," Bradman says. "There is clear information that you can reduce exposure to pesticides by choosing organic food."
In fact, previous research has found that switching to an organic diet for just five days practically eliminates pesticides in a child's body. But this begs a bigger question: How are these agricultural chemicals winding up on the market if they're potentially harming kids? Given that their purpose is to kill, repel, or disrupt living things, pesticides do have to go through a testing and registration process before they're approved for use, but history has shown that the adverse health effects of many approved chemicals only crop up years or decades down the line.
"In a way there's a little bit of an analogy to monitoring the effects of drugs. Safety tests make sure the drugs do something good for you, but they could also cause side effects," says Bradman. "A decision is made that they're mostly safe considering benefits, but years down the line, we can find things we didn't think about before. Sometimes we only find that after they've been used."
For more insight into what you're getting—or not getting—when you choose organic, check out The Truth about Organic.
Published on: October 23, 2012
Updated on: October 23, 2012