Long-Term Benefits of Eating Organic Aren't Clear, Kids' Doctors Say

Since prices are higher for organics, parents should buy healthy foods they can afford

The nation's pediatricians say kids need to eat more fruits and vegetables, but the food doesn't have to be organic. (Photo: WireImage/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

The nation's leading group of kids' doctors says it's not necessary for parents to spend extra money to purchase organic fruits, vegetables, milk or meat for their children.

The statement, released Monday, is the first time the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued an opinion on the value of eating organic. The issue has been thorny for healthcare professionals. Getting Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables has been a major public-health goal for the past decade. But studies show some produce is tainted by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

Growth in the organic food market has exploded in recent years. Sales in 1996 were $3.5 billion compared to more than $31 billion in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Assn. Organic foods were once confined to specialty stores but are increasingly available in typical grocery stores.

The pediatricians did due diligence to issue their opinion. A committee of experts looked at dozens of studies on organic produce, dairy products and meat to assess the value of organic foods compared to non-organic. They found that organic and non-organic foods have the same levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, fats and other nutrients. Organic foods, however, contain lower amounts of pesticides, and organically raised farm animals are less likely to be have drug-resistant bacteria.

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However, there is no scientific evidence that eating an organic diet lowers the risk of disease or results in better health over the long term. There simply aren't studies to show that.

"Consumers believe that organic produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce, but the research to support that belief is not definitive," the authors wrote.

Still, the report details clear advantages to eating organic, Christine Bushway, executive director and chief executive of the Organic Trade Assn., told Take Part.

"We didn't expect a major endorsement," says Bushway. "The challenge for readers is to take their time and look at what is being said in the report...It literally states that organic food consumption results in lower exposure to pesticides and lower exposure to drug-resistant bacteria. That is a big driver for why people buy organic meat."

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The cost of organics is a major reason behind the doctors' position, Dr. Janet Silverstein, one of the authors of the report and a member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition, told Take Part.  Organic foods cost up to 40 percent more than conventionally grown foods. Food costs weigh heavily on many American families. About 55 percent of children born in the United States are eligible for foods supplied under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children—or WIC. Only $10 per month is available to spend on fruits and vegetables under WIC food packages.

"The position statement made a point of stating that the most important issue is to feed children healthy diets, with fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk," she says. "More and more people are buying organic foods and the cost of organic foods are currently more expensive than conventionally grown food. Thus, it is important that parents with limited means don't buy organic foods at the expense of healthy foods. "

The paper was released at the AAP National Conference & Exhibition in New Orleans and will be published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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Americans appear increasingly willing to pay the extra purchase price for organic foods, Bushway notes.

"The price differential has gotten less between conventional and organic foods," she says. "I'm sure there are people who say, okay, I can't afford the price differential. But a lot of people look at it in a different way. People are starting to understand that they are not going to be able to turn to the government to bail them out if they don't take personal responsibility for their health, longevity and quality of life."

For families who can afford the higher prices attached to organic foods, there may be good reasons to purchase organics, the report notes. For example, organic farming offers superior environmental protections compared to conventional farming.

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"There are many reasons parents choose organic foods, including lower concentrations of pesticides and environmental concerns, and we need to give them information so that they can make informed decisions," says Silverstein. Families who are watching their wallets can use shoppers' guides to select the safest foods, she says.

For example, the information posted online by the Environmental Working Group—including a list of the "dirty dozen" foods with the highest concentrations of pesticides—can help families shop wisely. "This could prove useful for parents with limited means who wish to buy organic foods but need to choose those foods that are 'cleanest,' " Silverstein says.

Question: Should pediatricians advise parents to purchase organic foods? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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