Pediatricians raise doubts about the benefits of organic foods

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The nation’s leading group of pediatric doctors on Monday questioned the nutritional benefits of products of the booming $30 billion organic foods industry, raising doubts about the superiority of organic offerings for the second time in the past month.

While organic fruits, vegetables and meats do offer less exposure to potentially harmful pesticides and drug-resistant bacteria, the American Academy of Pediatrics found no evidence that proves those foods are safer to eat than conventional offerings.

“Certainly, organic foods don’t appear to be more nutritious,” said Dr. Janet Silverstein, a professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Florida, who co-authored the report. “Whether or not it’s safer, I think the jury is still out on that.”

That’s not to say organic food is bad for your health. Dr. Silverstein said the goal of the study was never to give organic food a “bad rap.” If anything, this points to the need for more studies, she said.

“I think we don’t know,” she said. “We can’t say that it’s not healthier any more than it is. It may very well be that organic foods are healthier and have less adverse effects. I don’t want it to be a bad rap on organic foods because I think that we really just don’t know.”

This study follows on the heels of a report last month from researchers at Stanford University, who also concluded in an overview summary of some 237 studies that conventional foods are just as nutritious as organic foods.

It’s leading to a backlash against the industry’s claims that its food is healthier.

Brian Dunning, a science writer for Skeptoid.com, called it the “organic fad.”

“It’s basically just a marketing term to sell food that appears to be better for you,” he said. “It’s a label that tries to make it sound fancy and special.”

He also argued that organic food is not without its own problems. “Organic foods have organic pesticides,” he said, “so it’s not like you’re getting less pesticides with your food.”

But Kaare Melby, campaign coordinator at the Organic Consumers Association, argued that just because researchers and pediatricians “can’t prove organic food is better” doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer real health advantages.

“They’re saying, ‘We can’t say that it’s not worse, because there are not enough studies,’” Mr. Melby said.
Dr. David Wallinga, senior adviser for science, food and health at the Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy, said conventional foods are more immune to antibiotics. “When it does cause an infection, it’s more likely the infection will be harder to treat with antibiotics,” he said. “It’s carrying bacteria on it that are more likely to be resistant to antibiotics.”

Dr. Wallinga added that there are other benefits to organic food beyond its nutritional value.

“People buy organic not just because the nutritional value is better, but also because the farm and the community where it is raised will have safer water, safer conditions for farmers, more wildlife, more diversity,” he said. “For the people who work and live on the farms, organic foods are definitely safer, because it means they’re not being exposed to pesticides and other chemicals that are used in conventional production.”

Farmers who raise government-certified organic produce do not use conventional methods to fertilize, weed or control diseases among their livestock. Instead of employing chemically created weed killers, for instance, organic farmers will spread mulch and manure as fertilizer and use advanced crop-rotation schemes to boost yields.

Dr. Silverstein said she recommends that families buy the fruits and vegetables they can afford, whether or not they are organic, because it is more important to eat a balanced diet than a smaller, more expensive amount of organic products.

“I think the message we’re trying to put out is that a healthy diet is the most important thing, and for people with limited means, if buying organic foods means they won’t have enough money left over to feed their children all the fruits and vegetables necessary for a healthy diet, then they should choose a good healthy diet over organic.”

According to the Environmental Working Group, the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables are peaches, apples, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, sweet bell peppers, celery, spinach, lettuce and potatoes.

Families that want to buy organic foods should focus on these fruits and vegetables, Dr. Silverstein said.
“If you can only buy certain foods organic, those would be the ones that I would choose,” she said.

On the other hand, the 12 least-contaminated fruits and vegetables include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangos, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papayas, according to the Environmental Working Group.

“If you could afford it, then the families need to decide whether or not they want to spend their money on organic foods,” Dr. Silverstein said. “They can pick and choose where it makes the most sense to spend their money.”

The Organic Consumers Association’s Mr. Melby called for more testing.

“They’re referencing a lack of studies and asking for more research,” he said. “This is entirely because there’s no premarket testing on genetically modified organisms or on pesticides that are placed into our food system.”

The study does conclude that organic foods contain fewer pesticides and drug-resistant bacteria, which have long been believed to cause health problems, he pointed out.

“In several ways, organic is actually better,” he said. “You’ll get less exposure to pesticides.”

Other studies on rats have shown that pesticides do cause health problems, such as an increased risk of cancer, decreasing reproductive rates, and increasing the likelihood of Parkinson’s disease, he said.

But Mr. Dunning said the fertilizers and pesticides farms use in conventional fruits, vegetables and meats are not designed to harm humans. “It’s not like you’re pouring cyanide all over the field,” he said. “So what’s poisonous to a weed is not poisonous to a human. They target different things.”

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