Little Evidence Organic Food Better in Long Run: Report

By Maureen Salamon
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Oct. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Parents weighing the value of feeding their children organic foods should understand there's little evidence to back the notion that such fare is healthier in the long run than conventionally produced food, though lower pesticide levels in organic products may be better for children's developing brains, a new report finds.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in a first-ever review of the impact of organic foods on children, also said organically raised animals don't contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, another significant benefit. Also, the review authors said public concern that growth hormones used to increase milk production in cows can cause health problems -- which leads some to buy expensive organic meat and milk -- is unfounded, according to the report, because bovine growth hormone is biologically inactive in humans.

"The most important issue is that parents shouldn't limit healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, because they want organic food, if they can't afford it," said report co-author Dr. Janet Silverstein, a professor of endocrinology at University of Florida in Gainesville. "There may be families that choose to consume smaller quantities of organic products, thus reducing the healthy foods they eat. Our take-home message is that a healthy diet is most important and that parents need to weigh whether to buy organic foods or not once they get past the issue of a healthy diet."

The report was released Monday at the AAP's national conference in New Orleans and is published online Oct. 22 and in the November print issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Coming on the heels of a controversial Stanford University study on organic versus conventional foods published last month, the AAP report repeated many of the same main points, including the fact that organic foods have the same vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, lipids and other nutrients as conventional foods. Both studies, which reviewed extensive research published on the topic over many years, also noted the difficulty of reaching solid conclusions because research examining long-term human health effects is scant.

Organic food consumption in the United States has exploded in the past 15 years, with sales expanding from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $28.6 billion in 2010, the AAP noted in the new report. More than two-thirds of U.S. consumers bought some organic products in 2008, and the amount of American land dedicated to organic crops has doubled since 1997.

However, organic milk, meat and produce costs up to twice what conventionally produced foods cost. To be defined as organic, products are generally grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation or chemical food additives, and without routine use of antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic livestock are offered freedom of movement and access to the outdoors and are fed pesticide- and animal byproduct-free organic feed.

"It's an emotional debate -- people are either very much for or very much not for organic foods, with not a lot of evidence to back up the claims," Silverstein said. "It's possible that as farming techniques improve, cost may not be as much of an issue, but it is right now. And we recognize the fact that some people choose organic not based on nutrition or pesticides, but because they're thinking about the environment and pollution."

The AAP also noted that unpasteurized or "raw" milk should not be consumed by children under any circumstances -- despite the notion that it's "natural" and therefore healthier -- since it can contain deadly bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter and Brucella -- and has been repeatedly associated with outbreaks caused by these pathogens.

Growth hormone treatment for cows -- which can't harm humans -- may actually produce environmental benefits, the study said, because by increasing milk production in each cow the practice theoretically can decrease the number of cows needed to produce a given amount of milk and thus require less land to feed the cows, the report contended.

Charles Benbrook, chief science consultant at the Organic Center in Enterprise, Ore., said the AAP report "clearly presents the major reasons parents choose to invest in organic food to increase the odds of their child's safe passage through the many tricky stages of development, during which even a little bit of the wrong chemical, like [a pesticide], can do lifelong damage."

Benbrook, whose group conducts "credible, evidence-based science on the health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming," said he was surprised the authors did not more strongly emphasize the IQ decline among children born to mothers born in a high-exposure pesticide group, research that was published in a niche journal not normally read by physicians.

"To me, four to seven IQ points -- about equal to a 4 percent to 7 percent decline -- is a pretty big deal, regardless of where the basic science appears," he said. "Like the Stanford study, the authors do not see evidence of clinically significant responses upon a switch to organic food. They implicitly ignore the health-promotion, disease-prevention benefits, although they do describe the sort of study that would be needed to detect such impacts, and note that such a study has never been done and would be very expensive."

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SOURCES: Janet Silverstein, M.D., professor, endocrinology, University of Florida, Gainesville; Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., chief science consultant, Organic Center, Enterprise, Ore.; Oct. 22, 2012, presentation, American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, New Orleans; November 2012, Pediatrics