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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP Headshot

Organic or Not? Two Pediatricians Weigh In

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Should I buy my family organic foods? This is a question we hear all the time in our practices. And it's not as easy a question to answer as you might think.

Producing foods organically is definitely better for the earth -- that much is clear. But whether we need to buy them to stay healthy -- that's a trickier question. Especially since organic foods are clearly more expensive. If we all had endless pockets of money, we'd recommend always going organic. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way for most of us.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently weighed in with a clinical report to help families navigate the tough grocery store decisions. We were both lucky enough to be at the press conference. Here's what we learned about the different kinds of organic foods:

MILK
This one surprised us a little. Turns out that the AAP feels there's no health reason to buy organic milk. There's no evidence that pesticides get into the milk in any real quantities. And as for hormones, the thing many parents worry about, research says there isn't much data to cause alarm. Yes, cows are given bovine growth hormone to make them bigger and it gets into their milk. But bovine (cow) growth hormone doesn't work on humans (our bodies don't respond to it) and our stomach acids break down most of it anyway. As for the female hormone estrogen, which is also given to milk cows to make them produce more, only a really tiny amount gets into milk, not enough to have any real effect. Breast milk has higher levels of estrogen than cow's milk.

Tip: The more fat in milk, the more the hormones stick around. Choose nonfat milk or one percent over whole milk for children over age 1 to reduce exposure further.

MEAT
Along with hormones, animals are given antibiotics to help them grow bigger. Another interesting fact we heard at the press conference: 80 percent of the antibiotics given in the U.S. are given to animals to make them grow -- not to treat an infection of any kind, animal or human. And whenever you give antibiotics this much, you increase the chance of creating "superbugs," bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Those we really don't want in our children or our environment. Through meat, these bugs can potentially spread to humans. Organic farmers don't use antibiotics, and so organic meat is has fewer of these superbugs.

The good news is that if you cook your meat thoroughly and wash your hands, you aren't likely to get a superbug infection from your chicken or beef -- so you don't need to buy organic meat for health reasons. There's no question superbugs are bad to have around, and are causing more and more infections in general, so if you can afford it, buying organic meats helps tackle the superbug problem.

Tip: Some market meat may be raised conventionally but without antibiotics -- grab that at the deli counter when you can!

PRODUCE
When it comes to the nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) in foods, there really doesn't seem to be a difference between organic and conventional foods. It's a really hard thing to study and be sure of, but the evidence so far doesn't make a great case for spending extra money on organics for that reason. There simply isn't data to say organic veggies have more vitamins.

The evidence is pretty clear, though, that conventional produce has more pesticides on it. What's difficult for scientists and doctors to determine is the level of pesticides your children and family get exposed to when eating conventional produce and then to know if it's dangerous or not. We're all pretty clear, though, that pesticides aren't good for you at any level -- especially for pregnant women and young children, because developing brains and bodies are very sensitive to their effects.

But before you shell out lots of extra money for organic veggies, there's some good news: Not all conventional produce has a lot of pesticides. There are choices to be made, and this is what we do when we go shopping. We really like the lists from the Environmental Working Group that include the "dirty dozen" (those fruits and veggies with the most pesticides, the ones you should buy organic when you can) and the "clean 15" (where you can save some money).

Tip: Whenever you buy produce (organic or not) rinse, rinse, rinse them prior to serving and cooking. Even those frozen blueberries...

The bottom (and boring) line, though, isn't about organic vs. conventional. The bottom line is that you should give your family a healthy diet, full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy and protein. You will be healthier if you eat lots conventional fruits and vegetables than if you eat only a little bit of organic fruits and vegetables (especially if you rinse that conventional produce really well).

Don't get caught up in the hype. Listen to the experts -- and remember, too, that lots of things go into making us healthy. After you unpack the groceries, take everyone and go for a walk.

Here's how Dr. Wendy Sue explained the report on her blog, Seattle Mama Doc: