When the daily recommendation of eating five servings of fresh fruits and veggies is multiplied by everyone in your family, “organic” can start to mean “out of your budget.” Organic fruits and vegetables can cost as much as twice their non-organic counterparts, yet parents have many reasons why they prefer organic produce for their children.
“Kids, especially at different developmental stages, are susceptible to chemicals,” says Dr. Jay Fong, pediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor at UMass Medical School in Worcester.
Reducing exposure to various chemicals via fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals is an excellent reason to choose organic, but is organic more nutritious?
“There have been a number of scientific research papers that show the nutrient content of organic produce and conventionally-grown produce is the same. It is a very hot topic in research right now,” says Maisie Ostrye, registered clinical dietitian at UMass Medical Center in Worcester.
While few pediatricians are going to recommend only feeding a child organic food when budget concerns affect everyone, most will admit that it is better not to expose children, especially young children, to industrial chemicals. Is there a middle ground?
“Whenever possible, and with budget permitting, buy organic produce,” Fong says. “The Clean 15 list is a nice alternative.”
Every spring, the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) does the scientific dirty work of testing fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue. “The Clean 15” is its list of fruits and vegetables with the least amount of chemical residue. Some of the yummy produce listed on the Clean 15 list includes asparagus, sweet potatoes, mangos, kiwi, and cantaloupe.
“The Dirty Dozen” lists fruits and vegetables that retain the highest levels of pesticides when grown conventionally and includes foods like apples, strawberries, peaches, and spinach. The EWG suggests that if consumers have a limited budget — and who doesn’t? — the lists can help them make informed choices. For example, parents can feel pretty safe purchasing conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables from the Clean 15 list, but might choose to purchase organically grown Dirty Dozen produce.
To avoid chemical exposure, “look for fruits and vegetables like oranges and bananas, ones with a thick peel that you take off,” Ostrye advises. Those with thick peels are often a good choice because the pesticides and other chemicals are removed from the edible portion of the food.
Pesticide levels are tightly regulated in the foods we eat and the United States Department
of Agriculture (USDA) tests for pesticides as well as a host of other agricultural chemicals in more than 100 different kinds of foods, including fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables, infant formula, and honey. The levels allowed are limited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Parents don’t want to expose their children to pesticides,” Ostrye says. “But keep in mind that pesticide levels cannot exceed government safety levels.” And in the most recent year available, 2013, less than 1% of the samples exceeded EPA safety standards.
But make no mistake, organic or not, feeding your children a variety of fruits and vegetables is always the best choice, medical professionals say.
“Focus on healthier food choices. Cleaner, organic produce is always safer since you are not giving kids added pesticides and chemicals, but always choose healthy foods,” says Dr. Richard Lirio, pediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor at UMass Medical School.
Tips on healthy eating
• “If parents cannot buy all organic, then buy conventionally grown and organic produce, but purchase a variety of both so you are not exposed to the same pesticides over and over,” Ostrye adds.
• Choose a rainbow of produce to eat daily. “Eat a varied diet with as many fruits and vegetables as possible so there is a constant flow of vitamins, minerals, and proteins to meet changing nutritional needs,” Fong says.
• “Parents should really be feeding their children whole foods as unprocessed as possible. Think whole grain and whole fruits rather than fruit juices,” adds Dr. Kerri Gosselin, director of Pediatric Nutrition at UMass, Worcester. “You keep more of the important micronutrients with unprocessed food.”
• Shop the produce section and perimeter of the grocery store rather than the aisles to help focus meals on unprocessed foods. When you do choose processed foods, read labels, and do it with your children, looking for whole grain and the least-processed items, as well as ingredients you recognize and can pronounce.
“Do what you can, but don’t stress over it,” Ostrye says. “Food is so expensive. Try to shop local, go to famers markets, and grow things on your own. Variety is the most important message.”
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