In a total disconnect, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued two papers in the past month on two of the hottest topics in the nutrition and health world: organics and pesticides. And the messages couldn't be more mixed. First, on October 22nd the AAP weighed in on Organic Food for Children (I was lucky enough to attend the press conference live). Their conclusion? Looking primarily at nutrient value of fruits, vegetables and milk, the authors concluded that organic foods provide the same vitamins, minerals, proteins, and other nutrients as conventional foods.
What happened next? For most major news outlets, some version of the headline “Organic no better than conventional” rapidly spread throughout the digital world.
While the report did acknowledge that there may be a reduction in exposure to potentially harmful pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria, and paid token respect to it better for the environment, these points seemed to get lost in the report’s final conclusion that “in the long term, there is currently no direct evidence that consuming an organic diet leads to improved health or lower risk of disease”.
But hold on...
This week, the AAP issued a surprisingly strong (in my opinion) policy statement which struck a different tone when it came to pesticides, one which painted the issue as potentially more serious in children, and something that pediatricians should bring up at your child’s next checkup. The report, titled “Pesticide Exposure in Children” (and to be published in the December 2012 issue of Pediatrics) provided these takeaways:
There’s a real health benefit to children of choosing an organic diet. The Policy cites food as one of the primary sources for children of pesticides-writing "for many children, diet may be the most influential source" (p.e1758).
The case continues to build for organics. Studies are getting more sophisticated (for example, we are now able to look at things like combined exposures and genetic susceptibility), and the past decade has seen a great expansion in the evidence supporting the adverse effects of chronic pesticide exposure. In fact, according to the authors, prospective studies have found early life exposure to a class of insecticides used in agriculture - called organophosphates- is linked with reductions in IQ and abnormal behavior associated with ADD, ADHD and autism.
What To do? First, Do No Harm. Then, Choose Organic (even just strategically)
It’s true that the first step towards healthy eating is to be sure you’re plate is loaded with the right foods: a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and heart healthy fats is the cornerstone of good health for growing bodies. But then, if your goal is to continue to maximize health and minimize risk, the evidence suggests that minimizing pesticide exposure is a sound next step that may provide real health benefits-and choosing organically produced foods to the extent that you are able is the best way to do that.
While I can understand that the AAP doesn't want to discourage families from eating a wide array of fruits and vegetables (and agree with that logic), to mention food as a primary source of pesticide exposure in this policy, and then not follow up with a recommendation to minimize that exposure through choosing foods produced without them, seems a disservice to parents. In fact, if this disjointed line of thinking were happening in my pediatricians’ office, I’d probably start looking for another pediatrician.
All of us deserve access to the best possible food for our families. And many, many of us are concerned about how to do this on a budget. Even just starting with the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen (which the organics paper cites as a viable resource) is a great step towards cleaning up your diet and protecting your family. Or check out my 9 Easy Ways to Go Organic on A Budget blog post for more tips and tricks.