Pediatricians Advise on Organic Food

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Do you consult your pediatrician about food? Nutrition evaluation is part of what doctors are supposed to cover in well-child visits, and I'm sure many pediatricians are asked for advice concerning food choices in general, and organic foods in particular.

To that end, the American Academy of Pediatrics gathered the relevant research comparing organic foods to conventionally produced ones, and prepared a report that's published in the November issue of Pediatrics. There's no new research here; the report analyses existing studies (many of which have been widely reported), weighs the evidence, and concludes with some advice.

I was glad to see that this report included environmental impacts in its analysis. Not only are environmental issues important in and of themselves, but also we're kidding ourselves if we think that impacts on the environment will not end up affecting our health. There might be a long delay in that effect, but no insult on the environment goes scot-free.

Here's what the report finds:

Organic food exposes eaters to fewer pesticides

There's no doubt that pesticides are toxic. Acute poisoning from pesticides is reported among farm workers regularly, and several studies have shown that chronic exposure to pesticides is associated with health problems, such as breathing problems, skin disorders, neurologic deficits and cancer.

Kids who don't work on a farm are exposed to pesticides mainly through their food. Organic food has consistently been shown to have fewer pesticides and to reduce exposure. The report cites a study that looked at kids that ate conventional produce, and showed that just 5 days on an organic diet reduced their urinary levels of pesticides to undetectable.

The report also informs that washing reduces some pesticides, but isn't proven to decrease human exposure.

But can we undeniably prove that exposure to pesticides in small amounts is harmful? We can't, and we definitely can't prove it's safe; I doubt excellent large prospective studies putting kids on a pesticide residue diet and a pesticide-free one will ever be performed.

Nutritional differences seem minimal

The report finds flaws in many of the studies comparing the nutrient content of conventional and organic produce, and declares the results conflicting. It concludes that although studies show more vitamin C and phosphorus in organic food, for now: "there does not appear to be convincing evidence of a substantial difference in nutritional quality of organic versus conventional produce."

Meat

Conventional growers feed animals routinely with antibiotics. Of all antibiotics used in the US 40-80 percent goes in animal feed, and animal and human antibiotics are pretty much the same. This leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread through people and food, which the report sees as a reason to prefer organic.

Milk

The report surprised many by declaring that they find no clinical difference between organic and conventional milk. Conventionaly raised cows are supplemented with growth hormones and estrogen, but the Academy claims the former breaks down and isn't active, and the latter's quantities are too small to matter.

Environmental impact

The report states that:

"Many believe that organic farming is less damaging to the environment because organic farms do not use or release synthetic pesticides into the environment, some of which have the potential to harm soil, water, and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.

In addition, it is thought that organic farms are better than conventional farms at sustaining diverse ecosystems, including populations of plants, insects, and animals, because of practices such as crop rotation.

When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste.

Organically managed soil has been demonstrated to be of higher quality and have higher water retention, which may increase yields for organic farms in drought years."

What's a parent to do?

The report is aimed for pediatricians, so it's a little technical, but if you care to read through the sections describing the use of growth hormones and sex steroids in conventional agriculture you'll be introduced to some of the common practices of conventional animal treatment. For example, animals are treated with a range of growth hormones and sex steroids (injected as estrogen pellets under the skin) to increase yields. The report reassures us through studies that the hormone levels found in our food are low, or irrelevant, but I doubt you'll find it a reassuring read.

The report suggests pediatricians emphasize the importance of eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and respond to the question of "should we go organic" with the facts presented by the report, and admit that in some areas evidence is lacking.

So this is the American Academy of Pediatrics' advice. What's yours?

Dr. Ayala

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