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Organic Food is Healthier for Children

Organic Food is Healthier for Children
by Wendy Priesnitz

In the ongoing debate about the relative health benefits of organic food, there is positive news from France. A 2009 report published by the French Agency for Food Safety (AFSSA) has found that organic foods are better for you and contain less pesticides and nitrates, which have been linked to a range of health problems including diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

The study was published in the peer reviewed scientific journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Organic experts feel that gives it a great deal of credibility, unlike an earlier UK Food Standard Agency Study that was widely criticized for using flawed methodology and a conclusion that contradicted its own data.

The major points of The French Agency for Food Safety study are:

  • Organic plant products contain more dry matter (more nutrient dense).

  • Organic plant products have higher levels of minerals.

  • Organic plant products contain more antioxidants such as phenols and salicylic acid (known to protect against cancers, heart disease and many other health problems).

  • Organic animal products contain more polyunsaturated fatty acids (protect against heart disease).

  • Between 94 and 100 percent of organic foods do not contain any pesticide residues.

  • Organic vegetables contain about 50 percent less nitrates than conventional (high nitrate levels are linked to a range of health problems including diabetes and Alzheimer’s).

The AFSSA study referenced a British literature review (i.e. not original research) funded by that country's Food Standards Agency (FSA), a government department designed to protect public health as it relates to food issues, and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The researchers announced that organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food. The study got a great deal of media attention, but it, and its conclusions were deeply flawed.

The report looked at evidence published over the past 50 years of the different nutrient levels found in crops and livestock from both types of farming and also at the health benefits of eating organic food. Dr. Alan Dangour, who led the review by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says: “Most studies were based on the hypothesis that eating organic food is beneficial to health. Looking at all of the studies published in the last 50 years, we have concluded that there's no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health based on the nutrient content.” [italics ours]

And that’s where the “told you so” media frenzy stumbled over this report. The conclusions are highly selective because they fail to consider the negative impact on health of fertilizer and pesticide residues in conventionally farmed food.

A representative of the FSA defended the study, saying, “We are neither anti nor pro organic food. We recognize there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. We specifically checked claims that organic food is better for you.” When asked whether consumers had been misled over the benefits of organic food, she said: "If they are buying organic on the basis that it is healthier, then that is not the case."

Well, we beg to differ and we’re in good company. A major EU study involved 31 research and university institutes. It found that levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds such as toxic chemicals, mycotoxins and metals such as cadmium and nickel, were lower in organic crops, while levels of nutritionally desirable compounds, such as antioxidants and vitamins, were higher in organic crops.

Among other studies, there is the 2003 University of Washington research that analyzed pesticide breakdown products (metabolites) in pre-school aged children. It found that children eating organic fruits and vegetables had concentrations of pesticide metabolites six times lower than children eating conventional produce.

The study, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, compared metabolite concentrations of organo-phosphorus (OP) pesticides in the urine of 39 urban and suburban children aged two to four years. The authors focused on children’s dietary pesticide exposure because children are at greater risk for two reasons: They eat more food relative to body mass and they eat foods higher in pesticide residues – such as juices, fresh fruits and vegetables. An earlier study cited by the authors looked at pesticide metabolites in the urine of 96 urban and suburban children and found OP pesticides in the urine of all children but one. The parents of the child with no pesticide metabolites reported buying exclusively organic produce.

Researchers recruited children for the study outside of conventional and organic grocery stores in the Seattle metropolitan region and asked parents to record all food consumed in a three-day period prior to collecting their child’s urine over the next 24 hours. Based on the food diaries, the study assigned the children into groups consuming at least 75 percent organic or at least 75 percent conventional fruits and vegetables. Parents were also asked about household pesticide use in their homes and on gardens, lawns and pets. Although the authors found that parents of children eating conventional diets were more likely to report some home pesticide use, they did not find significant differences in concentrations of pesticide metabolites based on this use.

Because many of the OP pesticides break down into identical metabolites, the study did not provide information on the specific pesticides children were exposed to. However, the study did determine that some children were at risk for consuming more OP pesticides than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers “safe” as a daily dose.

The UK’s study report even seems to contradict itself. The SOIL Association in the UK points out that the study rejected some nutritional benefits found in organic food. For instance, the appendix of the report shows that some nutrients, such as beta-carotene, are as much as 53 percent higher in organic food, but that – inexplicably – is not reflected in its conclusions.

So we continue to suggest that organic produce is healthier than conventionally grown produce, especially if you’re feeding children.

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