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Is Organic food for your child worth the extra $$$?

In these financially strapping times, many parents are looking closely at their budgets and wondering where to make cuts without doing harm to their family. This begs the question “is it really worth spending the extra money on organic food, or can we get by on the cheap stuff?” A tough question for some parents, since there is not a lot of published information on the benefits of organic food over commercially farmed food. Even more discouraging, are some of the studies published lately that seem to contradict what we thought were the health benefits of diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables. While some “organic” foods have been shown to be healthier and safer than their non-organic counterparts, there are plenty of researchers in the field (AKA cynics) who view the “organic” trend as simply a lifestyle choice rather than a movement towards better health. There was even a report published in the UK last year indicating no difference in the health benefits of organic vs. conventionally grown foods, so why, then, spend the extra money on organic foods?

First, some definitions:

Organic means (italicized text taken from: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/13737389/)

  • Animals have not been treated with: antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed made from animal byproducts.
  • Animals must have been fed organic feed for at least a year.
  • Animals must have access to the outdoors.
  • Food hasn’t been genetically modified or irradiated.
  • Fertilizer does not contain sewage sludge or synthetic ingredients.
  • Produce hasn’t been contaminated with synthetic chemicals used as pesticides.

What the labels mean:

  • “100% Organic”: Product must contain 100 percent organic ingredients.
  • “Organic”: At least 95 percent of ingredients are organically produced.
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients”: At least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. The remaining 30 percent must come from the USDA’s approved list.
  • “Free-range” or “Free-roaming”: Misleading term applied to chicken, eggs and other meat. The animal did not necessarily spend a good portion of its life outdoors. The rule states only that outdoor access be made available for “an undetermined period each day.” U.S. government standards are weak in this area.
  • “Natural” or “All Natural”: Does not mean organic. There is no standard definition for this term except with meat and poultry products. (USDA defines “natural” as not containing any artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients). The claim is not verified. The producer or manufacturer alone decides whether to use it.

The biggest health concerns regarding conventionally grown and farmed food when choosing what to feed children are the known risks of exposure to pesticide residues and unknown risk of consuming genetically modified foods. The Environmental Working Group has a list of 49 different foods they tested for pesticide residue. Here is the list ranked from best to worst (http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php):

   
1 (Best) Onions
2 Avocado
3 Sweet Corn (Frozen)
4 Pineapples
5 Mango (Subtropical and Tropical)
6 Sweet Peas (Frozen)
7 Asparagus
8 Kiwi Fruit (Subtropical and Tropical)
9 Cabbage
10 Eggplant
11 Cantaloupe (Domestic)
12 Watermelon
13 Grapefruit
14 Sweet Potatoes
15 Honeydew Melon
16 Plums (Domestic)
17 Cranberries
18 Winter Squash
19 Broccoli
20 Bananas
21 Tomatoes
22 Cauliflower
23 Cucumbers (Domestic)
24 Cantaloupe (Imported)
25 Grapes (Domestic)
26 Oranges
27 Red Raspberries
28 Hot Peppers
29 Green Beans (Imported)
30 Cucumbers (Imported)
31 Summer Squash
32 Plums (Imported)
33 Pears
34 Green Beans (Domestic)
35 Carrots
36 Blueberries (Imported)
37 Lettuce
38 Grapes (Imported)
39 Potatoes
40 Cherries
41 Kale / Collard Greens
42 Spinach
43 Sweet Bell Peppers
44 Nectarines
45 Blueberries (Domestic)
46 Apples
47 Strawberries
48 Peaches
49 (Worst) Celery

Without clear data, why should parents spend the extra money?

Safety data on toxins and pesticides is based on healthy adult subjects, so there really isn’t any clear safety data for kids, who are smaller and perhaps more susceptible to the effects of trace toxins. We already know that certain toxins and heavy metals can affect behavior and neurological development (i.e. lead poisoning), so why chance it with trace amounts of pesticides on foods. The other concern is with meat and dairy, certain toxins and pesticides can accumulate and become concentrated in the fat. Not so terrible if you eat lean meats and trim the fat, but possibly a bad idea to feed your infant non-organic whole milk or your toddler hotdogs (even “all natural”) for dinner every night.

How can I stay in my food budget and still feed my kids organic foods?

Compromise–use the list above to prioritize which produce items you buy organic.

Buy fruits and veggies in season–they are a lot less expensive (organic or otherwise) and usually on sale

Join a CSA Co-op–many local organic farms have delivery services in metropolotin areas; you pay a subscription for a weekly or biweekly delivery of fresh picked, locally grown organic produce. In the Puget Sound, try www.fullcirclefarm.com or www.klesickfamilyfarms.com)

Shop at your local Farmer’s Market–you can find organically grown (sometimes not certified) produce at reasonable prices, because you’re buying directly from the farmer.

Shop online–well, maybe not for produce, but frozen meat–definitely! You can get good deals on certified organic meats and wild seafood (not regulated like the other foods) by shopping online and buying in bulk.

Cook and freeze–concerned about waste? Make your food budget stretch further by preparing freezable meals ahead of time using organic ingredients. This is the best way to prevent wasting fresh produce and will also save money when you think about the number of times you may resort to take-out or prepared foods that cost more money than the homemade meal in your freezer.

Grow your own–a little extra work, but worth the reward. Check out my colleague’s blog for more info on organic gardening: http://naturopathicadvantage.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/organic-gardening-my-familys-new-hobby/

Finally, think of the extra cost as an investment in your child’s future. Not only are you leading them to make healthier lifestyle choices through example, but you are also supporting sustainable farming, a practice that will ensure that food is available for future generations and can continue to be cultivated without technology, chemicals, and bio-engineering.

Here are some links to additional articles and resources:

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/organic-food-better

http://www.docshop.com/2008/08/27/about-organic-food-is-it-worth-the-cost/

http://www.ewg.org/release/UK-Study-Fails-To-Analyze-Key-Health-Benefits-of-Organic

http://www.organic-center.org/science.nutri.php?action=view&report_id=157

http://www.sustainabletable.org/intro/whatis/

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