I grew up the kid of California health-nut parents, especially my dad who could never figure out why two caring hippies like Ben and Jerry could feed people so much butterfat. Now that I’m a parent, I want to feed my kids healthy food too, but these days the question of what is healthy seems so much more complicated. Organic? Natural? Non-GMO? It’s not always clear what’s best for our kids. For a long time, I thought I had to feed my family organic. After all, isn’t organic food less toxic, more nutritious, and better for the planet?
A few years ago I learned that most of what I believed about organic is wrong. For example, I thought organic produce always meant pesticide-free, but it turns out organic farmers use pesticides too. So what’s the difference? Well, the pesticides used in organic farming are mostly natural, rather than synthetic, but the law regulating organic food even allows some synthetic pesticides too.
Since these organic pesticides are natural, that must mean they’re at least gentler and less toxic, right? Not necessarily. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s less toxic. There are plenty of natural things that can make you sick, like hemlock and cyanide. Sometimes even squash.
Every year, an organization called the Environmental Working Group puts out a list it calls the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12 “dirtiest” or most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables EWG says you should try to buy organic and not conventionally grown. For years, I shopped by the Dirty Dozen list, but then I learned what EWG never tells you: pesticide residues on all of these so-called “dirty” fruits and veggies are well below the “tolerance” levels or the amount of pesticides scientists say can be safely consumed. So, yes, there are pesticide residues on these fruits and vegetables–on practically all commercially grown fruits and vegetables, in fact–but these pesticide residues are in very miniscule amounts that the USDA says aren’t going to harm you or your kids.
Well, you might still be thinking, at least organic food is free from glyphosate, that scary, cancer-causing ingredient in Roundup pesticide. It’s true that organic farmers don’t use Roundup, but I don’t think that’s a reason to buy organic food either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union Food Safety Authority both reviewed the evidence on glyphosate and determined it’s likely not carcinogenic. Now, it’s true that the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency or IARC disagrees, calling glyphosate “probably carcinogenic,” but keep in mind that same agency has concerns about red meat and hot beverages too.
Still, organic food must be the more environmentally friendly choice, right? Not necessarily. It’s true the organic movement was founded on principles of environmentalism and that many organic farming practices today benefit the environment, but unfortunately organic farming still requires more land than conventional farming to produce the same results. In some ways that makes organic farming less sustainable, not more.
But what about antibiotics in conventional meat or milk? I know some parents buy organic meat because they’re afraid of feeding their kids meat pumped full of antibiotics, but the truth is, well, that’s not true. While misuse of antibiotics is a legitimate concern about our food system (broadly speaking, misuse of and over-reliance on certain antibiotics in agriculture has contributed to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria), it’s important to note that the conventionally raised meat on your plate does not actually contain antibiotics. There are strict rules about how antibiotics are administered to animals, and the drugs must clear the animal’s system well before the animal is processed. While it’s laudable that organic agriculture advocates want to reduce antibiotic use, the downside is some animals suffer without treatment or even end up receiving natural or homeopathic remedies that aren’t proven effective.
So maybe what you’re really worried about is GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). Well, it’s true that by law, organic food can’t include genetically modified ingredients, but I don’t think there’s any reason to avoid GMOs either. The overwhelming scientific evidence suggests GM foods are just as healthy as the non-GM version of these foods. And if you think GM foods are “unnatural” because they were created with scientific tinkering, check out seedless watermelon and ruby red grapefruit. These two bred-by-science crops are welcome in organic agriculture because scientists just happened to use a different method to create these seeds.
Finally, most studies have shown no substantial nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods, so that’s not a reason to buy organic either.
Now, I’m not saying I never feed my kids organic food. Sometimes the only option is organic, or the organic option is cheaper or it happens to be fresher that day. In that case, I buy organic, but most of the time I’m more than happy to feed my kids conventional produce, milk, and meat, and I feel great about that decision. I know I don’t have to buy organic to make sure my kids are safer or healthier. Organic or conventional — the important part is just getting your kids to eat those fruits and vegetables in the first place. That’s a tough one, I know. My daughter is six now and she still refuses to eat anything green and leafy. Please don’t tell my dad.