Should your kid eat organic? The answer is complicated

Kids do get exposed to pesticides from food, but whether it’s worth it to go organic is complicated.


This week, an article in Slate argued that organic food for kids is a waste of money. The piece offers a great look at some of the science behind pesticide levels in fruits and veggies, and the conclusion is that parents shouldn’t worry about whether to buy organic or conventional fruits and veggies — we should just buy more of them.

Unsurprisingly, the story landed smack in the middle of a bitter, well-worn argument, as the 899 comments reveal. Some parents read the article and feel vindicated: Pricey organic food is an unnecessary luxury good, marketed to people who fell for organic food-pushers’ marketing ploy to fear the conventionally grown apple. In the other corner are parents terrified of feeding their kids fruits and veggies laced with dangerous poison that can have untold effects on their growing kid’s body and brain.

The article makes some compelling points that are well worth considering: Organic food contains pesticides, too. Washing fruits and veggies can reduce the pesticide load substantially. And most definitely, conventionally grown fruits and veggies are way better than none at all.

One of the main arguments in the piece comes from a study that calculated pesticide exposure on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables on the notorious “dirty dozen” list put out by the Environmental Working Group each year. The total levels of pesticides in those foods, the study concluded, don’t come close to the exposure limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And while that’s good to know, there’s still a huge question in my mind: How much do we really know about those limits? Much of the data the EPA relies on comes from animal studies that look for severe and obvious effects such as cell death. Those data are used to set the exposure limits for humans, both adults and children.

So science doesn’t tell us what these pesticides are actually doing in young kids’ bodies and brains. Maybe at such low levels they are completely harmless. But it’s possible that at even low levels, these molecules can have subtle effects that animal studies couldn’t possibly detect.

The fact is that some pesticides — at some debatable level — are getting into kids’ bodies from food. And organic food, some research suggests, can lower that pesticide load. Researchers found that out when they had 23 kids swap their conventionally grown food for organic versions for five days. When the kids ate only organic fruits, veggies, juice, pasta, cereal and salsa, the levels of several organophosphate pesticides in their bodies plummeted (as measured by urine analysis), scientists reported in 2006 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Just five days of organic food reduced the pesticide load in these kids. Five days, that’s it. “Such protection is dramatic and immediate,” the authors wrote.

So yes, feeding your kids a strict organic diet will lower their pesticide load, this study suggests. And feeding your kids conventional fruits and veggies will create a pesticide load that’s way lower than the EPA’s best guess about the amount that can cause harm. But the truth is that no one really knows how these compounds behave in a growing body. Such studies almost impossible to do. As someone who needs to feed a kid, I do what I can when I can. Baby V gets a lot of organic fruits and veggies. She also eats conventionally grown food, too. I wash her food well. And I realize that like anything having to do with how to raise a baby, I’m working with imperfect information and try not to let it faze me. There’s a lot we don’t know. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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