Organic Foods: Real Deal or Rip Off?

by Michelle Place, CRNP-P
It is a question you have probably asked yourself while standing in the produce aisle at the grocery store, are organic fruits and vegetables worth the extra money? Will it make a difference nutritionally for my children? After all, if something costs more it must mean that it is better, right? On the other hand, no one wants to be played for a fool by paying extra for no added benefit. Is it worth a price tag of up to 40% more to ensure that your children are consuming organic milk that is hormone and antibiotic free? What does “organic” really mean anyway?
In October of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report which summarized the advantages and disadvantages of organic foods:

What does “Organic” really mean?

As a result of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established standards that crops and livestock must meet to be considered “organic.”
Organic Crops: 

  • no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer (unless USDA approved) used for at least 3 years prior to the harvest
  • sufficient buffer zone to decrease contamination by pesticides, etc. from adjacent lands
  • genetic engineering, radiation and sewage sludge (Yuck!) are prohibited
  • pests, weeds, and diseases managed by physical, mechanical and biological controls rather than synthetic pesticides or herbicides (that means paying someone to weed by hand!)

Organic Livestock:

  • reared without the routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones
  • animals must have access to the outdoors
  • if the animal is treated with antibiotics for disease it cannot be sold as organic
  • routine vaccination as well as vitamin and mineral supplementation is allowed

What do the labels mean?

The USDA also regulates the labeling of organic foods:

  • “100% organic”  –must contain only organically produced ingredients
  • “organic” –must consist of at least 95% organically processed ingredients; the remaining 5% may be conventional or synthetic ingredients but must be on the USDA’s approved list
  • “made with organic ingredients” –must contain at least 70% organic ingredients
  • “free range”   – poultry product (the USDA regulates the term for poultry products only even though other products, such as beef and eggs, use the label) that comes from a bird which has had at least 5 minutes (!) of access to the outside each day (This was surprising because I was picturing chickens wandering around through the woods all day)
  • “natural” or “all natural” –meat and poultry that contain no artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives or artificial or synthetic ingredients and are minimally processed meaning that the raw product is not fundamentally altered.
  • “raw” milk –unpasteurized milk that can, therefore, contain harmful bacteria. The AAP, USDA, and CDC advise against the consumption of raw milk.  **All milk certified as organic by the USDA is pasteurized.


Give me the bottom line!

Growth Hormone (GH):
Bovine or cow GH is used because it can increase milk output by 10-15%. One of the major reasons people prefer to buy organic foods is to avoid exposure to these hormones. The good news is that 90% of bovine GH is destroyed during the pasteurization process. Even more of it is broken down by stomach acids during digestion. Anything left over is inactive in humans anyway, this means GH used in cows has no effect on people. In addition, there is no evidence that the use of GH affects the composition of the milk in terms of fat, protein, lactose or vitamin and mineral content.
Bottom Line: No benefit to organic
People worry that estrogen ingested from food could cause the early development of puberty and an increased risk of breast cancer, however, no research indicates that either of these is true.
Treatment of cattle with estrogen increases lean muscle mass, accelerates the rate of growth and is an efficient way to increase meat yield. Many studies have shown that meat products from cattle treated with these hormones is perfectly safe for consumers.
Surprisingly, estrogen content is the same in both organic milk and conventional milk and is significantly lower than the amount found in human breast milk . These hormones are fat soluble which means  the levels are lower in skim milk and increase as the fat content does.
Bottom Line: No benefit to organic; to avoid as much exposure to the hormone as possible drink milk lowest in fat
Between 40% and 80% of antibiotics used in the United States each year are used in food animals and 75% of these are given to promote growth and increase yields rather than to treat disease. Many of these medicines are identical or similar to the antibiotics used in humans. There is clear evidence that this practice promotes the development and spread of drug-resistant bacteria. There is no evidence that organic milk has clinically significant higher bacterial contamination than conventional milk.
Bottom Line: Avoiding use of antibiotics in livestock decreases the risk of the development of drug-resistant bacteria
Although consumers believe that organic produce is more nutritious, studies indicate that nutritional differences between organic and conventional produce are minimal. There are also few, if any, nutritional differences between organic and conventional milk.
Bottom Line: Eat a balanced diet including fruits and veggies and low-fat milk no matter how they were grown
Organic produce has lower levels of pesticide residues than conventionally grown produce. Although it seems like this would mean conventional fruits and veggies should be avoided, no studies to date have established a relationship between pesticide exposure from produce and negative outcomes.
Rinsing conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables reduces some but not all pesticide residues to varying degrees but has not been proven to reduce exposure to them.
It may be possible to decrease exposure to pesticides without breaking the bank. This can be accomplished by splurging on organically farmed produce that are typically high in pesticide exposure such as apples, strawberries and grapes and buying conventionally grown produce that are  low in exposure to pesticides such as onions, sweet corn and pineapples.
Bottom Line: Eating organic does decrease exposure to pesticides but low exposure probably does not matter too much
**For a complete list ranking produce from highest to lowest in exposure to pesticides click:

In Summary:

  • Organic and conventionally produced foods are nutritionally equivalent.
  • Eat your fruits and vegetables! The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.
  • Organic produce probably does reduce children’s exposure to pesticides – but if buying organic means that you can’t buy as many healthy foods you should choose conventionally grown produce.

Call Potomac Pediatrics at 301-279-6750 to make an appointment to discuss any feeding or nutritional issues with our in-house nutritionist Jane Henley.