Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On Eating Organic

While we started thinking about what kind of food we wanted Violet to eat early on, intending for her to be exclusively breastfed for at least six months bought us some time to study up on nutrition before we had to make any decisions about what to put on her plate. (Multiple health care organizations, such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the American Academy of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend delaying introduction of solid food, including cereal, until at least six months.)

I found myself fascinated as I explored for the first time the vast expanse of information available on diet/nutrition. I plowed through several books on the subject: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan; Eat to Live, by Joel Fuhrman; From Here to Longevity, by Mitra Ray; and The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell; and of course continued my research online through various websites and forums. It will remain an ongoing process, I'm sure, but we have reached at least one initial conclusion: organic is important. And for Violet, it's very important.

We all know that most of the produce we buy has been doused with pesticide. The movement toward organic food (produced without pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or irradiation) has been growing, but many people still aren't sure whether eating organic is really necessary, or just another marketing gimmick. Commercial growers and pesticide manufacturers imply that consumption of pesticide residue in produce is "safe" because "there is no conclusive evidence of harm to humans." However, as explained by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the lack of evidence regarding harmful effects long-term, low dose exposure to pesticide is not a result of studies proving pesticides safe - it simply hasn't been studied at all.

Government regulations on pesticide use are instead based on testing of high doses of pesticides in adult animals. But even if those regulations provide sufficient protection to adults (and I wouldn't count on it - remember, government regulations permitted the use of DDT once, too) they do not address the unique effects of pesticide consumption in infants and children. A study conducted by the National Research Council, Pesticides In the Diets of Infants and Children, confirmed that the toxicity of pesticides is different in infants and children than in adults, and found that "little work ha[d] been done . . . to "investigate the effects of pesticide exposure on neurotoxic, immunotoxic, or endocrine responses in infants and children."

There is no dispute that the infants and children are the most vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides. Children's developing organ systems, including the brain, nervous system, and endocrine system, can be damaged by exposure to toxins in amounts that would be tolerated by an adult. While we may not know exactly how harmful the pesticides used in growing our food might be, pesticides are toxic by nature - it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to conclude that their effects, however mild, can't be good for a growing little body.

An organic diet has been proven to decrease - immediately and dramatically - overall pesticide exposure in children. One study showed this to be particularly true for organophosphorus (OP) pesticides, a group of pesticides known to cause neurologic effects in humans, the residue of which has been detected in many fruits and vegetables. We may not be able to prevent Violet from being exposed to pesticides and other chemicals, but we can make every effort to limit that exposure where we can - and her dinner seemed like a good place to start.

Admittedly, organic produce - all organic foods - are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. But what's more important than providing our baby girl with the best, and safest, food we can find? In addition to being free from pesticides, organic produce has been shown to have higher nutritional content. There are better places in the budget to cut back than her health.

So far, Violet's menu of solid foods has been limited to fruits and veggies. We hope to keep her eating whole foods as much as possible, for as long as possible. (Within reason of course. We're not expecting her to go off to college never having experienced such culinary delights as the McDonald's french fry, or Ben and Jerry's. We're not cruel!)

The jury's still out on the extent to which meat, dairy and other animal products will be a part of her diet, but where they do show up we'll absolutely insist on organic. Organic meat, dairy, and eggs are even more important than organic produce, for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is the added dangers associated with the antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs found in non-organic animal products. But that's another post for another day.

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