One of the most common questions that I’m asked is: “Should I feed my baby organic food?” I know what my answer is (scroll down to check it out). But it’s such a popular question that when two University of British Columbia dietetic students were looking for a writing assignment for class, I asked them to answer your question. Here’s what students Karalee Derkson and Connie Lau found in their research into the question of organic food for babies, and their conclusions.
What is Organic Food?
There can be confusion with the term “organic food”. From the point of view of a scientist, all foods are organic – that is all foods are all living things (versus inorganic things like rocks). However, when most people use the word “organic” they mean foods that are grown or produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones (Dietitians of Canada). Instead, farmers use crop rotation, waste recycling, and natural pesticides to grow their crops (Dietitians of Canada).
Because all foods are technically living things, the term “organic” can be used for all of them. To distinguish foods grown using the methods listed above, groups have developed certification programs, such as the USDA, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the EU. This is why you often see “certified organic” on labels – these foods have gone through and passed the certification process. Of course, to go through the certification process, it takes time, paperwork, and money.
Not every farmer who uses organic growing methods will choose to undertake certification – especially if they’re a smaller farm. There are also farms that use many organic methods but who don’t quite fit all the certification criteria.
Factors to Consider when Choosing Organic Food vs Conventional Food
- There may be higher levels of phytochemicals (compounds that benefit health) in organic produce because they are a natural pesticide (Dietitians of Canada).
- In the studies that have been conducted to date, organic food does not contain more or better nutrients than conventional food (Forman; Dietitians of Canada; Dangour et al.)
- Currently, there is no significant evidence that consuming organic food leads to health benefits or that conventional food has negative health effects (Health Canada; Dangour et al.).
- Infants and children consume more food than adults on a weight for weight basis during development, therefore their pesticide exposure may be higher (Health Canada; National Research Council).
- Organic farms use less energy and produce less waste (Forman).
- In organic farms, no synthetic pesticides are used. Therefore, there is little risk of chemically damaging the surrounding ecosystems (Forman).
- In Canada, pesticides are illegal if they have the ability to cause cancer or birth defects (Health Canada).
- In Canada, The maximum acceptable amount of pesticides is set far below the levels that could pose health risks, even for infants (Health Canada).
- Organic food costs 10-40% more than conventional food (Forman).
Do All Conventional Foods have the Same Amount of Pesticides? The short answer is no. The amount of pesticides in a conventional food is based on how pesticides are used (both how much, were they’re applied, and when they’re applied during the plant’s growth) and the nature of how the plant grows/ what part of the plant we eat.
To empower people who wish to avoid pesticides without always purchasing organic, an American organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) published the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15”. They look at the levels of pesticides in samples of foods in the USA and then rank them in lists. While many of the foods in the US come from the same places as those found in Canada, it’s worth mentioning that there can be differences. And, these differences may lead to differences in pesticide levels.
The EWG's Clean Fifteen™ for 2014:
- (Sweet) corn – i.e. the type of corn that we humans eat
- Frozen (sweet) peas
- Sweet Potatoes
The EWG's Dirty Dozen™ for 2014:
- Bell peppers
- Nectarines - imported from outside US (and assumingly Canada?)
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Snap peas - imported from outside US (and assumingly Canada?)
Leafy greens such as kale and collard greens as well as hot peppers were highlighted for containing significant pesticides, but didn’t quite fall in the top.
For more information on the EWG click here
Dietetic Student Connie Lau: To take the extra step of precaution I would choose organic produce as a priority, especially during the crucial developmental years of a child. Although there are tight regulations on pesticide levels of food, evidence of long-term effects is inconclusive.
Dietetic Student Karalee Derkson: Due to the high cost of organic foods, and the lack of significant health benefits, I do not buy organic produce. I feel confident that the regulations on pesticide levels of food will keep exposure well below dangerous amounts. I would be comfortable feeding my child conventional produce.
Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD: I’m a strong believer in organic foods.
While research studies haven’t been designed to measure it, I don’t know how we can look at our health out of the context of the health of the environment. It’s clear that organic foods are better for the environment.
Yes, growing methods that are healthier for the environment are more expensive. Wanting cheap foods, available all year long goes against Mother Nature. That being said, personally I don’t have the budget to buy 100% organic. I do make choices with my money to be able to spend more on food. For example, I choose to live in a smaller home, drive a fuel-efficient car, and not have cable TV all so that I can have more money in my budget for food. Buy paying for (local) organic foods, I know that I’m using the power of my money to create a market for organic farmers. The more of us consumers who do so, the more incentive there will be for farmers (locally and around the world) to choose organic methods.
In addition to the growing practices, I also consider the distance that a food has travelled. I’ve been shopping at Farmers’ Markets and roadside stands since I was a child (far before it became trendy). What I love about this is not only do I reduce the fossil fuels used to transport the food, but I’ve learned a lot about farming methods. I use this knowledge to decide what conventional foods I’m willing to buy. For example, I don’t buy certified organic eggs from the grocery store. I buy my eggs from an older couple’s home. I can see the (small number of) chickens running around the yard. This couple hasn’t undertaken the organic certification process. Heck, they’re so old-school that they use the honour system for payment - I put my money in an unlocked box on their front porch! But I do buy other long-distance organic staples from the grocery store, such as tofu, polenta, and pasta noodles.
Here’s the order in which I choose foods:
- Local organic
- Local conventional and long-distance organic
- Long-distance conventional
Bottom Line(s) This article has been longer then my usual messages. But I wanted to dig into the issue a bit since it’s an important one. As you consider it all, please keep in mind these three points:
- I encourage you to talk to your local Farmers. And, maybe even grow some foods yourself. Become more aware of where your food comes from. With knowledge comes power.
- Regardless of the balance that you choose for your family, the research is clear that eating LOTS of vegetables and fruit is healthy. As Micheal Pollan so eloquently said: “Eat foods. Mostly plants.”
- It’s important to introduce your baby to a wide variety of foods in the first years of life.
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Alan D Dangour, Sakhi K Dodhia, Arabella Hayter, Elizabeth Allen, Karen Lock, and Ricardo Uauy. "Systematic Review of Nutritional Differences Between Organic and Conventional Foods." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2009).
Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Organic Products. 13 January 2014. Government of Canada. May 2014 <http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/eng/1300139461200/1300140373901 >.
Dietitians of Canada. Are organic foods better for my health? 16 July 2013. May 2014 <http://www.dietitians.ca/Nutrition-Resources-A-Z/Factsheets/Miscellaneous/Are-organic-foods-better-for-my-health.aspx>.
Environmental Working Group. Environmental Working Group. April 2014. May 2014 <http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/>.
Forman, J., Silverstein, J. "Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages." American Academy of Pediatrics (2012): 1412.
Health Canada. Consumer Product Safety: Pesticides and Food. February 2014. May 2014 <http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pubs/pest/_fact-fiche/pesticide-food-alim/index-eng.php>.
Environmental and Workplace Health: Pesticides and Health. July 2008. May 2014 <http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/pubs/contaminants/pesticides-eng.php#a67>.
National Research Council. Pesticides in the Diet of Infants and Children. Washington, DC.: The National Academies Press, 1993.