When you’re raising a little one, you want to make sure they get the best start in life, so it makes sense that most parents will probably go out of their way to give little ones the healthiest food available.
It is also easy to be anxious as a first-time parent and be ultra-aware of terms such as ‘processed foods’, ‘pesticides’ and ‘artificial fertilisers’ when it comes to the food we serve young children.
Organic food for baby:
One thing you might notice is that many of the baby foods available are marketed as ‘organic’ – a factor that might convince you that this is the way forward when making foods at home for your baby too.
However, the question is: are organic foods the foods we should be choosing to feed our babies? And, are there any benefits to organic foods – for our little ones AND for the planet?
“Organic” means that the food in question has been minimally processed, in such a way that lower levels of pesticides, artificial fertilisers or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are used in growing or processing it. On the other hand, our UK food laws permit the use of certain amounts of these chemicals in conventionally produced foods (non-organic food).
The label “organic” in supermarkets has been given a bit of a health halo, and therefore people are often willing to pay more for something that is labelled “organic”.
It’s important to realise that the price label increase of organic foods compared to conventional foods can be up to 200%!
Environmental Benefits of Organic
Is this price mark-up justified? The answer to this really depends on what you prioritise…
Organic food, in most cases, is better for the environment. The limits on the type and number of pesticides and artificial fertilisers that can be used on organic crops encourages a more natural growth cycle, which also means that soil quality is maintained and the naturally present insects in the soil are able to flourish.
Some environmental downsides however do include the fact that growing organic food results in fewer crops grown in a larger amount of land, which can be less efficient in terms of the overall yield.
Table 1 summarises some of the differences between organic and inorganic foods:
Nutritional Benefits of Organic?
When it comes to nutritional benefits, many studies have found that there is little difference in organic foods compared to inorganic foods; the nutritional value of foods grown conventionally and organically remains similar. However when it comes to the negative effects of pesticides and fertilisers, that’s a slightly different matter and the actual effect of pesticides and fertilisers on human health is still not well understood.
Highlighting pesticide levels in foods:
Ultimately we really don’t know whether pesticides are overtly harmful to human health. Concepts such as the “Dirty Dozen” (which is an American list of foods reported to have the highest number of pesticides) actually list foods which still remain within Government “safe limits” of pesticide exposure, and so are not necessarily a definitive guideline for foods to avoid. Additionally, regulations regarding pesticide use in the USA differ to our guidelines in the UK, so the popularly shared Dirty Dozen list does not necessarily apply over here.
UK Pesticide Action:
A group called Pesticide Action Network UK have published their own version of the “Dirty Dozen” list that is more relevant to the UK. The infographic below demonstrates some of the testing undertaken by the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) who looked at levels of pesticide residues found in school fruit and vegetable schemes.
Data taken from results of testing conducted by the Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) between 2005 and 2016.
This infographic shows the number of pesticide residues found on these specific fruits and vegetables over an 11 year period, but they aren’t necessarily exceeding the limits imposed in the UK for conventionally grown fruits and vegetables!
These limits or “maximum residue levels” (MRLs) for all foods and pesticides actually vary, but a report from DEFRA (2018) report outlines which of those MRLs are often exceeded in our foods and by how much.
Confused? Probably, and therefore it’s easy to see how deciphering whether “organic food” is worth the extra money can be a minefield!
Babies and organic foods
It is believed that current guidance on safe residue levels is acceptable for infants over 16 weeks (there is a review underway looking at safety of pesticide residues for children under 16 weeks by EFSA) and therefore children from weaning age (around 6 months of age) should not be at increased risk of ill health from consuming conventionally grown produce. As of yet, no long-term studies can confirm significant harmful effects of pesticide residues, especially not on specific age ranges.
The organic food debate continues…
For many parents you may want to choose organic foods to lower the amount of pesticides and artificial fertilisers to which your baby is exposed. In the EU baby food is sometimes referred to as made from “baby-grade” ingredients which are actually lower in pesticides and fertilizers because of the unknown risk that high levels MIGHT pose.
It’s ultimately a completely individual choice for parents…
What might be more instrumental in providing the most optimal diet for baby and the planet, is eating a wide variety of foods, mainly plant-based, which are produced locally and seasonally, and minimising buying food that requires a lot of resources to grow and bring into your home – from the soil to your plate.
Article written by Farihah Choudhury Prospective MSc Nutrition for Global Health student at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – with support from SR Nutrition.
Sources and further reading
- Hurtado-Barroso, S., Tresserra-Rimbau, A., Vallverdú-Queralt, A. & Lamuela-RaventóS, A.M.(2017) Organic food and the impact on human health. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition
- Anne Lise Brantsæter, A.L., Ydersbond, T.A., Hoppin, J.A., Haugen, M., Meltzer, M.H. (2017) Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annual Review of Public Health 38(1):295-313.
- Györéné, K.G., Varga, A., Lugasi, A. (2006) A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods. Orv Hetil 147(43):2081-90
- Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P., Maipas, S., Kotampasi, C., Stamatis, P., & Hens, L. (2016) Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture. Frontiers in public health, 4(148).
- EFSA Scientific Committee (2017) Guidance on the risk assessment of substances present in food intended for infants below 16 weeks of age. EFSA Journal
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2018) The Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) Report on the pesticide residues monitoring programme: Quarter 2 2018
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2017)
The Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme Report on Pesticide Residues Monitoring: Summer Term 2017
- European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Pesticide residues: new advice on foods for infants and young children http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/180628
- Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Fruit https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/pesticide-residues-in-food-results-of-monitoring-programme#school-fruit-and-vegetable-scheme
- Pesticide Action Network UK http://www.pan-uk.org/organic/
- Food and Agricultural Organisations of the United Nations: Organic Agriculture http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/