Going Organic

There are a number of buzz words that mommies pass around. They are words that we know we should understand because simply by saying them earns us immediate brownie points within our mommy circles, and saves us from the shame of being placed in the ‘bad mamma box’.

‘Organic’ is one of those words and by understanding the basics around ‘going organic’ means that you can make informed decisions when it comes to feeding your baby or toddler.

It goes without saying that parents will do whatever it takes to do their very best for their kids, but why exactly should we be paying between 50-100% more for organic foods?  Well, quite simply, going organic means that you stand to reduce your child’s pesticide load, which (in large enough quantities) can be harmful to tiny developing systems. According to a report published in 2008-2009 (President’s Panel of Cancer) nearly 1,400 pesticides registered by the Environmental Protection Agency for agricultural and nonagricultural uses have been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian cancers, as well as Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Several studies have also linked early pesticide and chemical exposure to the development of ADHD.

The question is whether the level of pesticides found in the food we eat, alone, are powerful enough to result in such extreme health complications?

According to the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PAN), paediatricians have known for decades that young children are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults. The reason being that their little bodies are less equipped to get rid of harmful chemicals and, gram for gram, little ones have a greater exposure to chemicals and pesticides than adults.

A recent controversial advertising campaign by Swedish supermarket chain Coop – which went on to take home a handful of awards at the Cannes Lions 2016 Advertising Festival – demonstrates the amount of pesticides regular families are exposed to simply through the food choices they make.

Although there is significant evidence that shows that organic foods contain less pesticide contamination than conventional foods (up to 30% lower), they aren’t 100% chemical and pesticide free (some organic farmers make use of natural pesticides that occur naturally in the environment such as copper and sulphur). In a 2012 study conducted by Stanford University,  it was found that pesticide levels in conventional fruit and vegetables were within safe levels and did not pose any more health risks than conventional fruit and vegetables. The same was found to be true for organic chicken, which although reduced exposure to antibodies did not show any reduced health complications.

The jury is clearly still out on this one. Having said all of that, organic foods have a number of other benefits (beyond reducing chemical and pesticide load) that reaffirm why we should consider ‘going organic’, whenever we have the choice:

  •  A 2007 study showed that organic fruit, veggies and milk are nutritionally superior to their non-organic equivalents: fruits and veggies were found to contain 40% more antioxidants than non-organic varieties and organic milk as much as 60% more antioxidants and fatty acids than non-organic milk.
  • Organic foods are also lower in nitrates, which are the ‘bad guys’ that can potentially be converted to toxic compounds in your child’s digestive tract.
  • To be certified as organic, foods need to be free of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) which is another reason why organic is a whole lot healthier for your little one.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the US, the below shopping list pinpoints those culprit fruits and vegetables that contain more pesticides than others:

TOP ‘CLEANEST’ FRUITS AND VEGGIES – starting with the cleanest: onions, avocado, sweet corn (frozen), pineapples, mango, asparagus, peas (frozen), kiwi fruit, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, papaya.

TOP ‘DIRTIEST’ FRUITS AND VEGGIES – starting with the dirtiest: peaches, apples, peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce, potatoes.

With a son who is totally obsessed with strawberries and has recently discovered a newfound love for peaches, I was more than a little upset when I first read this list. Do not panic. There really is no need to run screaming in the opposite direction of any apple or pear that isn’t 100% organic. Treat this as a guide to help you consider going organic when shopping for any of the notorious ‘dirty’ fruit and veggies and if you can’t find organic options then be sure to rinse extra thoroughly and remove skins and peels. Grapes can be soaked for several minutes and the outer layer of lettuce can be removed to rid of excess pesticides.

When it comes to understanding food labels and going organic, here’s what you need to know:

  • 100% organic means that, by law, the product should contain no synthetic ingredients.
  • Simply ‘organic’ means that there needs to be no less than 95% organic ingredients.
  • ‘Contains organic ingredients’ means that there are no less than 70% organic ingredients.
  • ‘Natural’ doesn’t mean that the ingredients are organic.
  • ‘Organically raised’ animals (for meat and dairy) aren’t given any growth hormones or antibodies.

Remember that you can’t control every single harmful substance entering your child’s mouth (especially when they have the tenacity to taste anything from crayons to dog food) but one thing you have control over is the ingredients you select to feed them.Take steps as big or small as you are comfortable with and know that the most important step is simply making healthy food choices a part of your family’s lifestyle.

Some helpful resources on organic foods and pesticides:

*The above information should never replace the advice of your GP, paediatrician or nurse.

Ingredients for Success

As we have established in my article on Homemade vs. Store-Bought baby food, homemade means nutritionally superior. Having said that, it all comes down to the quality of the ingredients you have used and how you have gone about preparing your baby or toddler’s food.

Basically if you haven’t taken the necessary steps to ensure that the food is as fresh and packed with as many nutrients as possible, then you may be better off using good old jarred options (which have been frozen or processed soon after the fruit or veggies have been picked to maximise the nutritional value).

When it comes to retaining vitamins, remember that the fresher, the better! Here are some tips for ensuring you get the best out of the ingredients you select:

  • Although not always easy to do (especially when you need to do your grocery shopping for the entire week in one go), aim to buy your fresh ingredients no earlier than the day before you plan on using them.
  • The longer the time between cutting and consuming means the more antioxidants are lost, so rather save the cutting and peeling until you are good and ready to use your produce, with skins and rinds kept in tact to reduce oxidisation. Studies have proven that key antioxidants including vitamin C and carotenoids are lost when peeling and cutting fruit and vegetables. This is because antioxidants become oxidised when exposed to air.
    •  In a 2015 study where a number of pre-prepared fruit and vegetables were tested, for a range of high-end supermarkets in the UK,  it was found that vitamin C levels were up to 90% lower than the textbook level for whole and fresh equivalents.  
  • The larger the pieces that are cut, of either fruit or veggies, the more nutrients are preserved (this is because the larger the surface area means less oxygen exposure = less damage). In addition to nutrient loss, smaller pieces of fruit and veggies are also more susceptible to dehydration and texture loss than larger pieces. That is not to mean that tiny and shredded pieces should not be used at all but they should be used in a quicker timeframe.
  • Try and avoid washing or chopping fruit or vegetables unless you plan on using them straight away.
  • Any pre-chopped fruits and veggies should be stored in an airtight container in the fridge to prevent any unwanted bacteria or chemicals from the refrigerator spoiling them. They should also be consumed within three days.
  • Keep soft fruits like avocados, bananas, paw-paw and tomatoes at room temperature (until they reach peak ripeness).
  • Throw fruit or vegetables away that appear brown, dried or shrivelled in any way.

When you walk through the fresh aisle of your go-to supermarket, it is extremely enticing to go for ready-to-use fruit and veggies that have been (oh so conveniently) chopped, peeled, sliced and de-shelled to make our lives a little easier. That’s totally OK from time to time (we are busy moms after all!) but extensive studies have been done to prove that fresh and whole is the way to go to maximise the nutrients you pass on to your little eater.