Should you go organic?
What this food label really means, and how to make the right choices for you and your baby
The thought of pesticide residues, antibiotics and toxic chemicals lurking in your food probably didn’t keep you up at night before you became pregnant. But now that you’re eating for two, you may feel compelled to buy the safest foods available. In fact, a recent survey from The Hartman Group, a think tank in Bellevue, Wash., revealed that having children is the most significant trigger for “going organic.” And, thanks to a burgeoning $9-billion-a-year industry, organic products are flooding the marketplace. The question is, now that such products are so readily available, is it time for you, too, to go organic?
A question of safety
The hallmark of organic food is that it is grown via environmentally friendly farming techniques. In lieu of synthetic substances, natural fertilizers are used, as are biological predators like ladybugs to manage pests. To earn the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) organic certification, farmland must be free from prohibited substances (pesticides, artificial fertilizers, etc.) for at least three years, and organic animal products must come from animals raised without hormones or antibiotics, explains Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., director of the agriculture, food and environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. But is organic food automatically better for you and your developing baby? That depends on who you ask.
A recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that organically grown berries and corn contain nearly 60 percent more polyphenolics, natural antioxidants that may improve your health. The theory: Crops grown without pesticides or herbicides produce more of these chemicals due to stress from insects or other pests, similar to the way humans build antibodies to ward off bacterial “bugs.”
Even so, agencies such as the USDA and the American Dietetic Association stand behind their claims that organic foods are not nutritionally superior or safer than conventionally produced food. “There are no definitive studies that organic is better for you,” Merrigan says. “Instead, we rely on intuition that food from an environmentally sound system is probably healthier.” It’s probably superior for your baby, too. Though no data suggest that food treated with antibiotics or pesticides will harm a fetus, several agencies have called for more studies on the long-term health effects of these substances.