Nutrition and Organic Food
As a functional medicine physician, I’ve taken a special interest in nutrition. Beyond that, my experiences as a mother have pushed me to learn more. I’m surprised by how much misinformation there is about nutrition, even among physicians and well-educated parents. I believe this is in large part to the food industry and misleading marketing tactics. It’s also hard to study the long-term effects of nutrition on a large population. But there is mounting evidence that a pesticide and GMO-free diet is worth the extra money, and I’m all in support of buying and eating organic foods, especially when it comes to kids.
Top 4 Reasons for Choosing Organic
1. Children are uniquely vulnerable.
Children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental toxins, and food is their greatest source of toxic exposure.
In 1993 the EPA and National Academy of Sciences sponsored a congressionally mandated study called “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children.”1 This study elucidated why infants and children are uniquely vulnerable to the harmful effects of environmental chemicals and toxic exposures.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) summarizes some key points from that 400+ page document in “Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns: Babies are vulnerable to chemical harm.”2 In short, children are exposed to a greater concentration of toxic chemicals than adults. Their developing brain and organs are especially vulnerable. To top it off, they have immature physiologic detoxification systems which make them less able to excrete toxins.
2. Pesticide exposure is harmful, and an organic diet helps to limit exposure.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) took a strong stance against pesticides in their “Policy Statement: Pesticide Exposure in Children”3 published in November 2012.
“Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children”4 established that dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for kids. More recent studies5 show that “an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production.” Multiple other studies6 demonstrate that organic foods also provide more nutrition, including antioxidants. It seems obvious that an organic diet provides many benefits.
Unfortunately, the AAP policy on organic foods is not clear. The above policy statement on pesticides is at odds with an article published just a month earlier called “Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages.” Although the authors acknowledge that organic foods have lower pesticides, less drug-resistant bacteria, and higher levels of certain nutrients, they call for more research. “Young children are more vulnerable to chemicals, but we simply don’t have the scientific evidence to know if the difference will affect a person’s health over a lifetime,” says Dr. Thomas K. McInerny,7 president of the AAP.
There is plenty of evidence to support organic foods, but I acknowledge the lack of long term studies, which would be hard to achieve. Regardless, I subscribe to the precautionary principle. In other words, better safe than sorry. I err on the side of caution and advocate for organic foods, especially when it involves children.
3. Pesticides go hand-in-hand with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
A recent article on GMOs was published by pediatrician and epidemiologist Dr. Philip Landrigan in the New England Journal of Medicine. “GMOs, Herbicides, and Public Health”8 sites two trends associated with GMOs to be of particular concern.
First, the use of GMOs has spawned substantial increases in the use of chemical herbicides in recent years. This continues to increase exponentially, as the indiscriminate use of herbicides has provoked the increase of herbicide-resistant weeds (compare this to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics provoking antibiotic-resistant bacteria).
Second, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has recently classified two widely used herbicides as probably or possible human carcinogens. Glyphosate (RoundUp), the most widely used herbicide, was recently classified by IARC as a probable human carcinogen. IARC also classified 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), another widely used herbicide, as a possible human carcinogen.
I agree with Dr. Landrigan’s statement in his interview with NEJM:9
4. GMOs can wreck your gut and fertility.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) position paper10 takes a strong stance against the use of GMOs for a number of reasons. These include insufficient safety assessment. They also cite numerous animal studies which implicate GM food consumption with serious health risks including:
- immune dysregulation
- accelerated aging
- dysregulation of cholesterol synthesis
- insulin dysregulation
- changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system
- and intestinal damage in animals fed GM foods.
Of particular concern to me is the effect on the gastrointestinal system. I hear from a lot of patients who have chronic digestive issues. Some GE crops – especially corn – produce their own insecticide called Bt-toxin. Bt-toxin kills insects by punching holes in their digestive tracts. But Bt-toxins also affect human cells,11 and are suspected to play a role in issues like leaky gut and gluten-related disorders.
The Risk of Not Choosing Organic
I recently listened to an interview with Jeffrey Smith of The Institute for Responsible Technology. I was surprised to learn that many of our sausage casings in the US are imported from New Zealand, because the quality of casings from US livestock is too poor. Butchers report that GM fed animals in the US have friable, thin, discolored intestines that are unsuitable for use.
There is enough evidence to warrant significant concern when it comes to using GM products in food or feed. The risks of GMOs clearly outweigh any perceived benefit, and children face even more risk than adults.12
If you’re interested in learning more, visit the website for The Institute for Responsible Technology at www.responsibleteachnology.org. You can find an app on your phone called The Non-GMO Project Shopping Guide, or pocket guides at www.ewg.org. Be aware of these common GM foods:
- Corn (including high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, corn syrup)
- Sugar Beets
- Cotton (including cottonseed oil)
- Zucchini and yellow squash
What does Organic Mean?
USDA organic means that products are non-GMO. But keep in mind that when you buy non-GMO verified products, that does not necessarily mean they are organic.
If buying all organic is not an option, make sure to reference the EWG’s Dirty Dozen.13 You can find this at www.ewg.org, or download a free app. Apples have topped the list for 5 years in a row! Be aware that these foods contain higher pesticide residues:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Snap Peas
- Hot Peppers
- Kale/ Collard Greens
Did you know that pesticides and GMOs may contribute to the epidemic of food allergies and intolerance in this country? Read more in my post on food allergies and sensitivities.