At the grocery store I overheard snippets of a couple’s conversation. “Are you saying we always buy organic no matter what?” the man asked. “Yes, always,” the woman replied, examining a head of broccoli. Their Nascar-inspired shopping cart carried two young passengers. “But look how much cheaper…”
Yes, organic is expensive. You’ll spend $3.19 on a half-gallon of organic milk, compared to $2.29 for Kroger-brand. Organic eggs are $3.19 a dozen, and regular eggs are $1.49. A head of organic lettuce can run $1.99, while its traditional counterpart is $1.45. And Gala apples will cost you double: $1.99 a pound, versus 99¢ a pound for traditional at the same store. So is it worth it?
No one argues that some herbicides, pesticides, hormones, and other chemicals remain in the fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk we buy at the grocery store. And research has shown that some of these residual chemicals are toxic and yes, cancer-causing. The question is how much of any chemical or hormone is a danger. No one has a definitive answer to those questions because, for ethical reasons, testing with these chemicals is conducted only on animals.
Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is the spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She says the EPA sets what it determines to be reasonable levels of acceptable residue based on animal testing. The FDA enforces these findings by monitoring and testing foods in the marketplace. Blake said consumers should know that some of this residue remains in commercially produced food, but that “the amount of substance is what is relevant.” Along these same lines, the EPA reports “laboratory studies show that pesticides can cause health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects. These effects depend on how toxic the pesticide is, and how much of it is consumed.”
Blake also indicated that what she thinks is more important is that we eat adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables. “We don’t want people to be afraid to eat healthy, traditionally grown [non-organic] fruits and vegetables,” if they cannot afford the more expensive organic foods.
Liv Schneider, MD, local pediatrician and mother of three, agrees. “Organic foods have lots of potential benefits, but they are more expensive than traditional foods,” Dr. Schneider says. “I hope we can work towards more affordable organic foods, but in the meantime, it is more important to get fruits and vegetables in our diets in place of junk food.”
But there are good reasons to consider buying organic foods when you can. In a report published in the May 2010 issue of Pediatrics, a study revealed that malathion (an accepted pesticide used on fruits and vegetables) was found in the urine of children tested. More unsettling, though, was the finding that there was a correlation between higher levels of malathion and increased incidence of ADHD. Previous studies have linked neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders (including ADHD) to exposure to pesticides, but generally in children of farm workers and others exposed to abnormally high levels of the chemicals. This study garnered attention because it was composed of a large group of children from the general population.
As far back as 1993, the National Research Council report titled Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, argued that diet delivers the bulk of children’s exposure to pesticides. According to the study, “This exposure poses a greater health risk to children as compared to adults, because not only do children consume more food on a per-weight basis than adults and consequently have higher exposure, they also may be more vulnerable to the effects of toxicants because they are still developing.” And the EPA, while reassuring consumers that the current FDA levels are safe, agrees that there are “critical periods in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual’s biological system operates.”
Mehmet Oz, MD, renowned surgeon, author, talk show host, and health pundit, offers some useful guidelines for families examining the issue. “People always ask whether buying organic is healthier, and the answer is yes,” Dr. Oz says. “Eating organic protects you from potentially harmful chemicals such as pesticides.” On his website, he advises certain fruits and vegetables, namely those with thinner skins, require more pesticides to grow and absorb more in the process. These are the ones that made his safer-to-eat-if-organic list: apples, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, grapes, pears, nectarines, peppers, celery, potatoes, carrots, and all lettuces and greens.
Foods in the thick-skinned group are pretty safe to eat when non-organic because fewer chemicals are needed to produce the food and/or they have a tough, outer skin that traps most of the applied chemicals. This group includes: avocados, eggplants, pineapples, bananas, corn, kiwi, mangoes, papaya, sweet peas, oranges, grapefruit, squash, broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, cauliflower, melons, and sweet potatoes. Dr. Oz also recommends going organic with dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Jessica Haddad, mother of 8- and 10-year-old boys, follows the thin skin guidelines of buying organic where the produce may have absorbed more pesticides because of thinner skin. She also avoids buying pre-packaged, overly processed foods when possible. “I try to be strategic in what I buy. I try to buy the healthiest product available, but not necessarily organic,” Haddad says.
Elli Sparks, mother of Stephanie, 13, and Peter, 10, is totally organic in her food purchases. She believes that not only should we avoid chemical additives like pesticides and preservatives in foods, but that organic foods are more nutritious due to the natural fertilizers used. Is she on track? Older studies show no differences in nutrients, but some newer studies do show higher amounts of vitamins and phytochemicals in organic foods. In her opinion, some organic foods taste better too. “There is no question that the organic carrots I buy taste sweeter than the conventional ones,” Sparks says.
Bovine growth hormone is another part of the organic argument. While BGH is banned in most countries in Europe, it is used extensively in the United States to make beef cattle fatter and milk cows produce more milk. As a result, the European Economic Union (consisting of 27 countries in Europe including: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain) have banned all milk and beef products from the United States. Scientists are concerned that even small amounts of this chemical could disrupt our own hormonal function or have other effects.
Dr. Schneider is concerned about BGH too, but for a different reason. “With regard to BGH, I am more concerned about the fact that cows receiving BGH often get a higher dose of antibiotics because they develop infections more frequently. Although current studies show that the hormones and antibiotic levels are safe, I am concerned about antibiotic resistance,” Dr. Schneider said. “Because of this, I tend to buy my children milk with no BGH but not organic milk, per se,” the pediatrician says. In response to public concern about this, Sam’s Club, Kroger, Food Lion, and Martin’s here in Richmond sell milk with labels that read: Our farmers pledge not to use artificial growth hormones.
Sound complicated? It doesn’t have to be. Whether or not you go organic is a personal decision, but it need not be a black or white one. If concerns linger about what may be in your families’ foods, but you find going completely organic is too costly or difficult, you can always minimize your exposure to toxins by buying certain foods organic and others conventional.