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Organic foods: Are they actually pesticide-free?

The current body of research has not convincingly demonstrated that pediatric consumption of organic foods contributes to better long-term health outcomes.

Editor's note: This is the first in a series on organic produce.

It is almost a given for many parents that "Certified Organic (CO)" means healthier food. Ask the average American consumer what makes CO foods healthier and the answer is often that they are pesticide-free. Some parents don't hesitate to pay an extra 20 to 40 percent to reduce pesticide exposure believing it's better for their children.

In reality however, the current body of research has not convincingly demonstrated that pediatric consumption of CO foods contributes to better long-term health outcomes. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement in 2012 acknowledging this: "Parents know it's important for children to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. But it's less clear whether spending the extra money on organic foods will bring a significant benefit to their children's health."

The statement continues to discuss the lack of evidence for CO health benefits, but, frustratingly, makes several ambiguous statements: "While organic foods have the same vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, lipids and other nutrients as conventional foods, they also have lower pesticide levels, which may be significant for children."

Is CO food truly somehow safer? Is it true that they contain lower amounts of pesticides per serving? The answer lies in understanding what is allowed and what is prohibited in organic agriculture. Foremost, CO produce is absolutely farmed using pesticides. It would be completely impossible to sustain mass produced organic agriculture without controlling invasive species that destroy crops. There is a difference in the type of pesticides allowed in CO farming, but as we'll see, it makes little difference to human health.

By law, pesticides and herbicides approved for CO farming must be "non-synthetic". This means they must be substances derived from natural sources or exist in nature without human intervention. To further understand the significance of this difference, we must first realize that some non-synthetic pesticides (those allowed in CO farming) are more toxic than synthetics, though some are not. The official list can be found here.

Importantly, the fact that a pesticide is derived from natural sources, doesn't say anything about its toxicity profile. Journalist and author Jon Entine, a senior fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy and founder of the Genetic Literacy Project said, "The statement that organic foods "have lower pesticide levels" than conventionally grown foods is both misleading and wrong. It's based in part on the faulty premise that organic foods do not use pesticides, when in fact they extensively use them."

Not only that, but some CO approved pesticides are considered highly toxic. Rotenone, derived from jicama plants is commonly used in CO crops. As Scientific American reported, "rotenone is highly dangerous because it kills by attacking mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of all living cells. Research found that exposure to rotenone caused Parkinson's Disease-like symptoms in rats, and had the potential to kill many species, including humans."

While that may sound discouraging to some who look to organic for an escape from pesticides, understanding that we have found no concrete reasons to believe that our produce is harming our children should be reassuring.  As the AAP reminds us, we have copious evidence that children who eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventional, have better health outcomes.

In my next installment, I will delve deeper into the levels of pesticides found in conventional and CO produce.

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