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Entries in organic foods (2)

Monday
Dec102012

Practical Parenting: Decoding Food Labels

In follow up to Dr. Barry’s recent post about organic foods, I thought I’d share some helpful information about decoding the various labels used to classify foods as “organic” and “natural” and “hormone free” etc.  As Dr. Barry said, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in October 2012 stating that organic foods were not found to have any nutritional value above conventionally grown foods.  However, one caveat of their statement did concede that conventional foods typically do contain more pesticide residues than organic foods. 

While studies haven't shown a direct cause and effect relationship between pesticide exposure and specific health problems in children, there are concerns that chronic exposure to pesticides may be linked to various adult health problems and one study showed an increased risk of ADHD in children whose urine had higher levels of pesticide byproducts.  And research has shown that the primary form of exposure to pesticides in children is through dietary intake.  Interestingly, several studies have clearly demonstrated that an organic diet reduces children’s exposure to pesticides significantly (interestingly, one study showed that urinary pesticide residues were reduced to undetectable levels when kids were switched to an organic produce diet for just 5 days). 

While the research remains inconclusive, most experts agree that limiting pesticide exposure, especially in children, is ideal.  So do you find yourself, like I do, standing in the produce aisle and scratching your head as to what each label actually means?  You may be surprised to learn, that not all claims made on food labels are regulated. Here’s an overview of the most common “healthy sounding” label terms and what you should look for the next time you’re at the grocery store:

“Natural” and “All Natural” – There is absolutely no formal definition or any criteria for the designation “natural” on food labels.   There are no certifications or inspections required for these foods, so while they

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Tuesday
Oct232012

Healthy Eating: Is Organic Always Better?

I think we all wrestle with this debate in the grocery store: is it worth the extra few bucks on the organic variety? Is it really healthier?

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) helped to shed some light on the organic debate, ultimately suggesting that children eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventional or organic. The debate regarding which is healthier, however, remains inconclusive.

To start, it is important to understand what the term organic means. In general, it refers to a method of “growing crops and raising livestock  that avoids synthetic chemicals, hormones, antibiotic agents, genetic engineering, and irradiation” (Forman et al. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. Pediatrics Oct 2012). There are many standards that farmers must meet in order to earn the “organic” stamp of approval, which is what drives up the cost on these products.

The recently published article in Pediatrics discusses produce, milk, and meat separately, which I found helpful. Here are a few of the interesting points:

  • Produce: When comparing conventional and organic produce, both were found to have the same nutritional content. It is possible that conventional fruits and vegetables have had slightly more pesticide exposure, but the long term effects of this are still undetermined.
  • Milk: Conventional and organic milks both seem to contain the same nutrients, and conventional milk does not seem to have a significant increase in the amount of bacteria or growth hormone (interestingly, bovine growth hormone isn’t absorbed by humans anyway!). The AAP doesn’t seem to see a significant health benefit of organic over conventional milk. The most important consideration is that all milk is pasteurized. 
  • Meat: There is some concern that conventional meat is routinely exposed to antibiotics, which may ultimately lead to more human antibiotic resistance if these meats are continually ingested. Organic meats are antibiotic free, and thus are much less likely to be contaminated with drug resistant bacteria.

I’ll share a quick anecdote about organic produce that my husband and I found interesting. As we toured a banana plantation during a month practicing medicine in rural Costa Rica (see picture at right), we learned about the distribution process of bananas. We were surprised to see rolls of various different stickers (Del Monte, Chiquita, organic varieties, etc.) and asked how they determined which bananas got which stickers. The answer? The very same bananas got both conventional and organic stickers. The farmer said that all of their bananas were "organic," whether or not they were labeled as such. I can’t speak for all produce farms, but in this case, the products were all the same!

There is no doubt that there is a price to pay for organic products – in fact, they tend to cost about 40% more. Is it worth it? The reality is that we’re still figuring that out – organic farming is a relatively new concept, and there are many more long term studies that need to be done to help figure this out. Either way, I think the AAP is right to continue to recommend that children get a wide variety of healthy foods – conventional or organic – because these are better options that the processed alternative! We have a lot more to learn about organic products, but I think this is a start in trying to navigate where to spend the money and where to save.