Organic Versus Non-Organic: the Impact on Young Children

About our contributor, Christine Reese, MS, RD: Christine has a Masters in Nutrition and has been a Registered Dietitian for 8 years. Although she is vegan and cooks accordingly, her 3-year-old son eats an omnivorous diet. Her background includes counseling on weight loss, diabetes, and kidney disease in adults. She loves talking about all things nutrition.

 ImageAs a child, I greatly enjoyed grocery shopping with my mom, especially when I used my own little shopping cart and added items to it (many of which my mom put back). I remember that we bought fruit and vegetables, but I do not remember any great availability of organic options. I do not recall many organic choices anywhere in the store. That was in the 80’s; today, organic food options abound, as well as controversy about whether it is necessary to purchase them.

In order to be labeled organic, a food must meet specific criteria set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the National Organic Program (NOP). Anyone who wants to use the term “organic” in relation to a food or product must be certified organic. The USDA uses certifying agents, such as Oregon Tith Certified Organic, to make sure all organically labeled foods and products meet organic standards. Some of the requirements for food to be labeled organic include: food production practices must improve, or at least maintain, natural resources, including soil and water quality; farmers must create defined buffer zones to prevent cross-contamination with non-organic fertilizer and runoff; crops are rotated for the management of soil fertility and nutrients; and farmers are prohibited from using any fertilizer that contains synthetic substances not listed on the National List of synthetic substances allowed in organic farming.

Due to these standards and regulations, we can be reasonably assured that the organic foods we buy are truly organic. The question remains as to whether any benefit exists in purchasing said organic food. This question is divided into four components:

  1. pesticide exposure

  2. nutrient composition

  3. antibiotic resistance

  4. environmental impact

Research confirms that consuming organic food decreases the level of pesticides in our bodies, but experts do not agree as to whether exposure to these residues poses any harm, or whether decreasing the residues actually improves health. Research does suggest that reducing pesticide exposure is particularly important for subsets of the population, including children, because: childhood is a time for rapid brain and nervous system development, children receive a greater dose of pesticides due to their lower body weights, and their bodies are not as efficient as adults in detoxifying the pesticides. Despite research that shows no adverse effects in rats to chronic low-dose levels of pesticides (note that the studies may not directly relate to humans), on November 26, 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement that outlined the deleterious effects to children of pesticide exposure and how to reduce such exposure. According to the policy statement, “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity,” and that “prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function (defined in post titled “Importance of Early Childhood Nutrition”) and behavioral problems.” Thus, from a pesticide exposure perspective, it is imperative to limit the pesticides our preschoolers are exposed to, and one way to do this is to buy organic food.

Although some studies demonstrate superior nutrient composition in organic foods, including higher levels of vitamin C, vitamin E, and other antioxidants, a recent review of the research by Stanford University states that the nutrients in organic produce are not significantly different than those in conventionally grown produce. Proponents of organic farming claim that studies which showed no difference in nutrient content had flaws not accounted for, including that it takes at least 5 years to improve soil quality, and that it is soil quality which makes a big difference in nutrient composition of produce. In addition, organic farming practices differ markedly from one farm to the next, and this variability may confound results.

Perhaps, then, we do not buy organic produce because we believe it contains more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but if our families eat animal foods, then purchasing organic meats appears to help decrease exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the Stanford University research cited above, “consumers of non-organic chicken or pork are 33% more likely to ingest three or more strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than those who eat organic meat.” It is the overuse of antibiotics in livestock that promotes the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and these antibiotics are banned in organic production.

Finally, from an environmental impact perspective, it makes sense to buy organic. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “synthetic pesticides can kill insect pollinators, harm wildlife and farmworkers, and often end up in the air and water.” I cringe when I am outside with my son and leaf blowers are blowing dust, and whatever has settled into the dust (i.e., pesticides, herbicides), into our breathing space. Conventional farming also contributes to runoff, which is when fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide compounds end up in streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. These compounds harm aquatic life and create dead zones in the ocean. In addition, some of them may make their way into our drinking water.

So, which is the winner: organic or conventionally grown food? Definitely organic, because it reduces pesticide exposure, decreases exposure to antibiotic resistance, and protects our environment. Perhaps organic food is not more nutritious than conventional, but at least it isn’t worse. Of course, organic produce tends to be more expensive than conventionally grown food, so a helpful tip is to use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to show us which fruits and veggies are the most contaminated with pesticides, and to buy those products organic. It also lists the “clean fifteen,” which are the least contaminated produce items and thus can most safely be purchased conventionally grown. Another tip to save money is to purchase organic just for the foods you buy and eat the most. And as with conventional food, buy whatever organic produce is in season and on sale.


  1. Wikipedia Organic Food:

  2. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program:

  3. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, Title 7, Part 205-National Organic Program:

  4. Environmental Working Group: Organic Produce Reduces Exposure to Pesticides, Research Confirms:

  5. Smith-Spangler C, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives: A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012 Sept; 157(5): 348-366.

  6. London L, et al. Neurobehavioural and neurodevelopmental effects of pesticide exposures. Neurotoxicology. 2012 August; 33(4): 887-896.

  7. Pesticide Exposure in Children. Council on Environmental Health. Pediatrics 2012; 130; e1757; originally published online November 26, 2012; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-2757.

  8. Holzman, David C. Diet and Nutrition: Next Course in Organic Debate. Environ Health Perspect. 2009 October; 117(10): A439.

  9. Swanson, A. What is farm runoff doing to the water? Scientists wade in. NPR The Salt:

  10. Biello, D. Oceanic Dead Zones Continue to Spread. Scientific American.

  11. Duhigg, C. Health Ills Abound as Farm Runoff Fouls Wells.

  12. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Protecting Water Quality from Agricultural Runoff.

  13. Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide

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