Which organic foods are worth the higher price?
When a health conscious individual visits the supermarket, he or she is often tempted by the array of products displayed in the organic section. However, in these tough economic times, the question becomes: “Are they worth the higher price?” A new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) attempts to answer that question. It was published online on October 22 in the journal Pediatrics.
According to the Organic Trade Association, the US market for organic foods has grown from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $28.6 billion in 2010. Organic products are now sold in specialty stores and conventional supermarkets. Organic products contain numerous marketing claims and terms, only some of which are standardized and regulated. Therefore, the AAP’s Committee on Nutrition, and Council on Environmental Health assessed organic products to determine whether they were actually beneficial to one’s health.
The report notes that in terms of health advantages, organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease. Organic farming has been demonstrated to have less environmental impact than conventional approaches. However, current evidence does not support any meaningful nutritional benefits or deficits from eating organic compared with conventionally grown foods, and there are no well-powered human studies that directly demonstrate health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet. Studies also have not demonstrated any detrimental or disease-promoting effects from an organic diet. Organic foods regularly command a significant price premium; however, well-designed farming studies demonstrate that costs can be competitive and yields comparable to those of conventional farming techniques. The report suggested that pediatricians should incorporate this evidence when discussing the health and environmental impact of organic foods and organic farming while continuing to encourage all patients and their families to attain optimal nutrition and dietary variety consistent with the US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate recommendations.
The clinical report reviewed the health and environmental issues related to organic food production and consumption. It defined the term “organic,” reviewed organic food-labeling standards, describes organic and conventional farming practices, and explores the cost and environmental implications of organic production techniques. It examined the evidence available on nutritional quality and production contaminants in conventionally produced and organic foods. Finally, the report provided guidance for pediatricians to assist them in advising their patients regarding organic and conventionally produced food choices.
The report noted that feeding children organic fruits and vegetables reduces the amount of potentially harmful chemicals and also may help prevent immunity to antibiotics. Thus, children benefit from consuming organic produce because it is not grown with synthetic pesticides. The report cited several studies linking pesticide exposure to health issues such as memory problems and cancer in adult farm workers and an increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. They also cited a study that reported that switching to organic produce for just five days dramatically reduced the levels of pesticide residue in the urine of children who usually ate conventional produce.
In regard to vitamin and mineral content, the investigators found little difference in the vitamin and mineral content between organic and conventional foods; however, some organic produce does have more vitamin C and phosphorus. They also reported that organic milk does not appear to have significant health benefits for children. Many parents buy organic milk because of concerns about growth hormone and estrogen often given to conventionally raised cows. However, the researchers explain that growth hormone given to cows does not affect humans. They noted that consumption of milk from estrogen-treated cows appears to be safe for children; in addition, they explained that they found little difference in the sex-hormone concentrations in organic and conventional milk. They recommended that a child’s exposure could be reduced by switching to skim milk because the more fat content in milk, whether organic or not, the higher the concentration of estradiol.
In regard to meat, the investigators focused on the risk of exposure to antibiotics from eating conventionally-raised animals. They suggested that eating organic meat could reduce the risk of disease related to antibiotic resistant bacteria. They cited one study that reported that teenage girls who eat more red meat from animals treated with hormones have a great risk of breast cancer later in life. Thus, they recommended that further research should be conducted regarding the potential health effects of low-level estrogen exposure from food.
The report stressed that the best diet for children includes generous amounts of fruits and vegetables. In addition, it noted that there is no direct evidence that an organic diet will prevent disease or convey health benefits. The investigators recommended that parents should select organic versions of produce that is known to have significant pesticide residue when conventionally grown (i.e., apples and celery); however, they should select the less expensive, non-organic products that are known to be low in pesticide (i.e., onions and pineapples).
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