NEW ORLEANS – Although there may be some benefits in consuming organic products, children will be just as healthy eating a balanced diet of conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, the American Academy of Pediatrics said today.
In its first official report on organic foods, the academy said that organic and conventionally produced foods are nutritionally equivalent. Organic produce probably does reduce children’s exposure to pesticides – but if buying organic means that a family can’t buy as many healthy foods, regular produce is probably fine.
"The most important thing is to eat a healthy diet," Dr. Joel Forman said in a press briefing. "Fruits and vegetables have a lot of health benefits, and we want people to eat a lot to them."
Families who can afford it might want to make some of their choices organic, especially with fruits and vegetables that are grown using lots of pesticides.
"Some produce has more pesticides than others," said Dr. Forman, one of the study’s primary authors. "Corn and onions tend to have very [low levels of] pesticides on them, and so it doesn’t make sense to spend the extra money; while apples and grapes have a lot of pesticides, it probably does makes sense to buy these [organic] if you can."
Studies have never proven conclusively that organic foods are associated with long-term benefits on children’s health, said Dr. Joel Forman of Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. But a few suggest there could be problems with conventional produce.
"We can now measure very, very tiny amounts of [pesticides]," Dr. Forman noted. "But just because we see differences in exposure levels, do they mean anything for the health of children? We think that it may."
Organic produce has the strongest evidence base, as some studies suggest that children are uniquely vulnerable to pesticide exposure, Dr. Forman said.
"Very young children consume more relative to their body size, which sets them up for exposure to greater amounts than an adult would experience," he explained. "And there are also critical windows of brain and nervous system development" during which children might be particularly at risk.
The AAP report noted that "several studies have clearly demonstrated that an organic diet reduces children’s exposure to pesticides commonly used in conventional agricultural production." The paper cited a small longitudinal study that found children who switched from conventional to organic produce developed nearly undetectable urinary levels of malathion.
It also referenced a 2007 study that found high levels of organophosphates in female Mexican farm workers who had children with delayed cognitive development at 24 months old, suggesting that intrauterine exposure could affect childhood neurocognitive development.
However, the report added, "Although chronic pesticide exposure and measurable pesticide metabolites seem undesirable and potentially unhealthy, no studies to date have experimentally examined the causal relationship between exposure to pesticides directly from conventionally grown foods and adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes."
There seem to be no advantages to organic milk, the report said. Estrogen and estradiol in cow’s milk are harmless and not related to premature puberty or breast development. Because these hormones are fat soluble, the concentrations decrease with lower-fat milk.
"Ingestion of milk from estrogen-treated cows appears to be safe for children," the report concluded.
Data are lacking for organic meats, but concerns about the use of growth hormones and sex steroids in cows, pigs, and chickens are probably unfounded, the report said.
Sex steroids increase lean muscle mass in food animals, and have been implicated in precocious puberty and adult breast cancer. But the report noted that the natural hormones are not active – or even bioavailable – in humans. They are bound by sex hormone–binding globulin and are almost completely degraded by the human gastrointestinal tract. It’s unknown whether synthetic steroids have any impact on humans.
Antibiotics in meat might be a concern – but it’s more a global concern than an individual one.
"Evidence is clear that [the use of antibiotics] promotes the development of drug-resistant organisms in the animals and that these ... colonize the intestines of people living on the farms where this occurs," the report noted. "Because organic farming prohibits the nontherapeutic use of antibiotic agents, it could contribute to a reduction in the threat of human disease caused by drug-resistant organisms."
Cost is an unavoidable issue, according to the report. Even though organic foods might have some health edge over conventional foods, their cost could make them unavailable to many or, if purchased, decrease the overall amount of healthy foods a family can purchase. Organic products typically cost 10%-40% more than similar conventionally produced products.