Melissa Arca: The question of buying organic foods

11/15/2012 12:00 AM

11/14/2012 1:37 PM

I love taking the kids to farmers markets. The allure of fresh produce and allowing my children to pick out their favorite fruits and vegetables is something I feel good about. Of course, they also always flock to the kettle corn stand. Balance, I suppose.

When it comes to parents making the decision on whether to buy organic or not, I would say that moderation and looking at the big picture play a key role.

There's been controversy in two recent reports, one released by Stanford University in September and another by the American Academy of Pediatrics in October. The Stanford researchers concluded that although 38 percent of conventional produce contained pesticide residue (compared with 7 percent in organically grown produce), the organically grown produce carried no greater nutritional value.

What it failed to address, and what the AAP expressed concern over, is that we really don't know what effect these low levels of pesticides could have on our children – even at federal standard levels. A small study done on pregnant women who work on farms in California revealed a small but significant increase in developmental and motor delays in their offspring.

It makes sense that over time, these pesticides, hormones and antibiotics used for produce, meat and dairy could have a significant and detrimental effect on growing children. The problem is, we just don't know for sure.

Caution? Absolutely.

But here's the other thing to keep in mind: Until organically grown foods are the norm rather than the exception, parents have to balance finances and availability with the real need to serve a healthy variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy.

Here's where the big picture and moderation come into play.

I try to buy organic for my family when it comes to the "dirty dozen" – apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries and potatoes (list provided by Environmental Working Group). I usually reach for the hormone-free milk and organically grown meat, too, when available and reasonably priced.

Do I always buy these items organic? No, but I do try to maintain some balance.

I've never been an alarmist, nor do I intend to start now. However, there is some significant concern here when we think about low levels of toxins such as pesticides entering our children's bodies. Not to mention that both girls (and boys now too) seem to be reaching puberty at a much earlier age than in generations past. Several studies have hinted at a possible connection between conventionally grown foods (in addition to myriad other factors) and this phenomenon.

Until organic is the standard, parents will simply need to reconcile the cost factor with the big picture of just making sure your children get their daily dose of fruits and vegetables (five servings a day). Those vitamins, minerals and proteins are essential to growing healthy bodies.

So don't go crazy with worry. Exercise some moderation and always keep the big picture in mind.

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