Should you go organic?

What this food label really means, and how to make the right choices for you and your baby

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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.

Best Bang for your Organic Buck

Despite the obvious environmental benefits and perceived health effects, expense stands in the way of many people going “all organic.” So the question becomes which organic foods to buy.

With fruits and vegetables the most pesticide-laden (see “The Dirty Dozen” at left), organic versions of these products now account for more than 40 percent of organic-food sales. Some produce such as apples and berries are more vulnerable to pests (and therefore more pesticide-protected) than “cleaner” produce like bananas, oranges and broccoli. But despite the price (organic baby spinach usually costs about 50 cents more per pound; organic carrots, 20 cents more), an organic label doesn’t guarantee that foods are pesticide-free. According to the USDA, 23 percent of organic produce contain pesticide residues. These chemicals can come from substances in the soil (some of which have been banned for decades but remain in the ground) or drift onto organic crops from nearby fields.

When it comes to livestock, conventionally raised animals are given hormones and antibiotics to prevent disease, enhance growth and increase milk production. Organically raised livestock don’t receive such treatments, and their feed is all-organic.

While your baby is developing, you’re right to want to eat the best foods possible, and choosing organic food makes sense if your budget allows. But remember, the most important thing is to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy without making yourself crazy in the process.

The Dirty Dozen

Below are the top 12 most pesticide-laden foods when grown conventionally: 1. Peaches 2. Strawberries 3. Apples 4. Spinach 5. Nectarines 6. Celery 7. Pears 8. Cherries 9. Potatoes 10. Raspberries 11. Sweet bell peppers 12.Grapes (imported) From a study by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization

Where to buy organic These days, you don’t have to look far to find organic food. Here are three great shopping options:

1. Farmers market The number of farmers markets featuring organic produce has nearly doubled since the government began tracking them in 1994; to find one near you, visit

2. Natural- or specialty-food store Look for a Whole Foods ( or Trader Joe’s (www.trader store in your area.

3. Online grocer delivers to your door.