Should Baby Eat Organic? American Academy of Pediatrics Wades into the Debate

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Editor's note: With last week's royal announcement, we're guessing that parents-to-be Kate Middleton and Prince William will be taking close notes on studies like this (and we already know what HRH Prince Charles of Wales thinks about organics). Congrats to the royal family, and to the American Academy of Pediatrics for taking this issue on, even if we think their guidelines could have gone -- much -- further.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently announced its first-ever guidelines on organic foods for babies and children, published in the journal Pediatrics. The article, Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages, hit the mark in some cases, but in others, fell way, way short. Generally, their wishy-washy “recommendations” are unclear and, in some cases, follow the usual Big-Ag party line insisting on a lack of evidence in the scientific literature of the dangers of industrial agriculture mainstays, like growth hormones and pesticides, even as these potential dangers have been largely (in fact, hugely) understudied. In other words, the AAP seems to be OK withnot practicing the precautionary principle when it comes to the health of children.

Class Distinction?

In talking with my mom friends, most dismissed the Pediatrics report and the AAP’s guidelines entirely, saying that they were going to go with their “gut” feeling about whether or not to give their kids organic foods – essentially, that they would practice the precautionary principle until there was unequivocal evidence (from a non-biased source – more on that below) that ingestion of pesticides, growth hormones and other mechanisms of the industrial agriculture system are safe for kids (hint: don’t hold your breath). But while reading the report, I couldn’t stop thinking about how my mom friends and I are very, very lucky – we have the financial option to choose to feed our kids organic food. Parents with less means may have to make a cruel choice – feed their children less fruits, vegetables and dairy to avoid pesticides, antibiotics and hormones? (Clearly, not a nutritional option.) Or take their chances – because, as the AAP points out, it is “unclear” whether exposure to these substances is “clinically relevant”?

Are Organics More Nutritious?

The AAP’s primary stance is that kids should consume lots of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy – no matter their source – because these products are so important in a balanced diet. They cite the expense of organic products as a limiting factor for choosing organic products, and note that organic food has not been shown to be more nutritious than its conventional equivalent. (We've seen this back-and-forth about the nutritional value of organics before, most recently with the now-infamous “Stanford Study” that did not find higher levels of nutrients in organic food, thoroughly rebutted by several sources.)

I'd argue that point, as there are a number of studies (some of which the AAP acknowledges in the report) that have demonstrated higher levels of nutrients in some organic foods (vitamin C in certain types of produce, vitamin A and antioxidants in grass-fed meat and dairy, etc.). But more importantly, sustainably raised fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat contain significantly less pesticide residue, growth hormones and antibiotics than their conventional counterparts. Sustainable food is also better for the environment, relying less upon fossil fuels and creating less pollution. (To their credit, this is something that the AAP does acknowledge, making their other discussion points that much more confusing.)

Dairy and Meat: Organic or Not?

The most egregious problem with the article is the section on organic dairy and meat. The AAP all but dismisses the evidence that shows that organic and low-input (i.e., not factory farmed) milk is higher in antioxidants and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and pooh-poohs the potential health effects of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBGH) and sex steroids, both commonly used in factory farming. In addition, the organization asserts that the administration of artificial growth hormones in dairy cows is actually good for the environment:

GH [growth hormone] treatment of cows may actually have environmental benefits. GH increases milk production per cow, which could theoretically decrease the number of cows needed to produce a given amount of milk, with resultant need for fewer cows and, thus, less cultivated land needed to feed the cows. In addition, fewer cows would result in the production of less manure with resultant reduced methane production and less carbon dioxide production, with a resultant salutary effect on global warming.

These are arguments we have heard many times from Big Ag, as Chris has discussed (and thoroughly debunked) hereand here, so it is not entirely surprising that the citations supporting the claims that rBGH is safe and that the administration of growth hormones in dairy cows is environmentally “friendly” were both penned by authors from Monsanto, the agrochemical behemoth that designed it. (Stephen Colbert also spoofed this line of reasoning back in 2007.) This is clearly a red flag for bias, with the company that patented and produced rBGH standing to gain financially by making pronouncements about its safety and environmental friendliness. (Although Monsanto sold rBGH to Ely Lily in 2008, both articles cited in the Pediatrics piece went to press earlier.)

In addition, the AAP’s discussion of estrogen supplementation in cattle is confusing at best. One sentence states: “Ingestion of milk from estrogen-treated cows appears to be safe for children.” Later in the same section, however, the authors acknowledge that there is no threshold “below which there are no hormonal effects on exposed children” and that “children are extremely sensitive to estradiol [an estrogen] and may respond with increased growth and/or breast development even at serum concentrations below the current detection limits.” So is estrogen supplementation safe or not? The authors call for more studies to find out.

Pesticide Exposure

The AAP acknowledges that eating organic produce exposes kids to fewer pesticides, citing several studies that demonstrate that an organic diet reduces children’s exposure to common agricultural pesticides. The article also points out the severe health consequences of pesticide exposure (including prenatal exposure) seen in farm workers, along with the results of a large federal study (NHANES) that demonstrated increased rates of attention-deficit disorder correlated with increased urinary concentrations of a common agricultural pesticide. Additionally, the AAP reports that “the primary form of exposure to pesticides in children is through dietary intake.”

So their conclusions on pesticide exposure from conventionally-grown produce is truly baffling: “Organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues than does conventional produce, and consuming a diet of organic produce reduces human exposure to pesticides. It remains unclear whether such reduction in exposure is clinically relevant.” Because there are no studies that have causally linked the relationship between exposure to pesticides from conventionally grown foods and adverse health effects, the AAP feels comfortable not taking a direct stance on the effects of pesticide exposure on children.

What AAP Got Right – and Fundamentally Wrong

Fortunately, amidst the confusion of their discussion points, the AAP hit a couple of nails on the head. They point out the detriments of the use of non-therapeutic antibiotic in livestock production, which affects everyone (even vegetarians) by creating strains of dangerous bacteria that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics. I also give them props for talking about the overall environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, including fossil fuel use and pollution. And plus one in the AAP column for the inclusion of studies that demonstrate that sustainable agriculture is a viable option for feeding the world (but minus one for prefacing that section with quotes from Norman Borlaug about the necessity of GMOs to stave off world hunger).

Mostly, I think that the American Academy of Pediatrics missed a valuable opportunity to advocate for children – to acknowledge that no parent should have to make the choice between feeding their kids enough fruits, vegetables and animal products and exposing them to the ills of industrial agriculture. To stand up and say: we will be advocates for making healthy, pesticide-and-hormone free food available to all, not just those privileged enough to choose organics. Wishy-washy recommendations and discussion points only serve to muddy the debate further.

As for me, I'm counting my lucky stars that I have the option to feed my son organic food. Like my mom friends, I choose to err on the side of caution when it comes to exposing my son to pesticides, hormones and other byproducts of industrial agriculture. What about you? We'd love to hear your reaction to the Pediatrics report – do you plan to alter your kids' diet based on the advice of the AAP?