In many of our local supermarkets, there is a section of organic produce in addition to produce that is traditionally farmed. For those of us selecting and preparing food for our families, we often wonder what items, if any, we should purchase with the organic label.
When I shop, I typically choose traditionally farmed foods for my family’s meals. There are certain items I choose to purchase organically grown, if available; but most I leave on the shelf. Ultimately, I value meals eaten at home, with a variety of colors on the plate, more than organic exclusivity.
Some of my families, however, feel very strongly about the benefits of living organic. It seems that family values, lifestyle, or financial means often dictate organic choices, rather than nutritional goals.
Here’s what we know
It is hard to say that organic items are a more nutritious option. We know organic produce (as all produce) is only as nutritious as the ground it came from. Studies on organic nutritional quality is difficult to generalize, therefore, since product comes from so many different farms. In addition, we know that the “organic” label means different things on different products. These labels can be confusing, and in some instances, deliberately misleading. Together, it is sometimes difficult to actually know what you are getting.
On the other hand, organic produce does offer decreased consumption of pesticide residue. We know chronic exposure to pesticides used in traditional farming is harmful to humans. The challenge, however, is that most of the studies showing harm from pesticide exposure are from observations of farm workers with direct exposure to these chemicals. The effect of pesticide exposure through consuming traditionally farmed produce is less clear.
All considered, according to a recent review in Pediatrics, experts concluded there is little nutritional advantage to organic food. The authors did conclude, however, organic food production does provide less exposure to pesticides, while likely having less environmental impact.
More practically speaking, if choosing organic foods is going to limit the rest of your grocery budget to more processed food items, then organic is likely not worth the money.
But, if you are organic-curious, here are some suggestions:
1. Buy seasonally. Seasonal produce is often less expensive than out-of-season items. Often, organic and non-organic seasonal selections will have very similar price points.
2. Think about supporting local famers who supply healthy food. In Kansas City, we have great local markets in different parts of the city. Local and regional farmers can bring their produce to us, allowing our dollars to support their efforts. Get to know your local markets in Kansas and Missouri.
3. If you want to include some organic items in your grocery budget, focus your buying habits to limiting your child’s exposure to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group has a list of the “dirty dozen.” These produce items are the ones testing highest in pesticide residue, and likely should be the first choices when make a buying change. Regardless of the produce you buy, common sense dictates a good wash before consumption.
4. What about milk? There is no evidence that organic milk has clinically relevant superiority to conventional milk. Hormones in milk are not biologically active once in the stomach. Organic or otherwise, milk should not be a significant part of your child’s diet (see my Milk Rules for more info.) Bottom line: Buy organic milk for the taste, not the nutrition.
My greatest goal is for families to eat together as often as possible, regardless of organic items on the plate. Prioritize family meals, keep tech off the table, and enjoy.
Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.