An increasing number of parents are choosing to give their children organic food. Many think it’s healthier and more natural, but what are the real differences between organic and standard supermarket fare? And will going organic really benefit your children, or just increase your shopping bill?
People opt for organic food for a variety of reasons, including taste, environmental considerations and concerns about animal welfare. The most common reason for giving it to children, however, is the belief that it’s healthier – and therefore better for them.
How is it different?
The main difference is that organic food contains fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown food. The Soil Association, which campaigns for organic food and farming, says some of the chemicals used in traditional farming may have long-term effects on health, by contributing to cancer and decreased male fertility.
In addition, organic food isn’t allowed to contain any artificial colourings, flavourings or sweeteners, or any genetically modified (GM) ingredients. With organic meat, greater emphasis is placed on animal welfare. Antibiotics aren’t routinely added to animal feed, as with conventional animal rearing, where there are concerns that the practice is leading to resistance to antibiotics in humans.
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Is it healthier?
Campaign groups claim that organic food does offer health benefits, such as higher vitamin levels and cancer prevention. However, advertising watchdogs won’t allow organic producers to make such claims, on the grounds that there currently isn’t enough evidence to back them up.
Eating organic food should reduce our exposure to pesticide residues, but it doesn’t mean we can avoid them entirely. Organic baby foods have been found to contain more or less the same levels of environmental pollutants as standard jars of baby food. This is because these industrial pollutants are found throughout the world in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain.
Is it the best food for my child?
Three out of four babies in the UK have organic baby food regularly, according to the Soil Association. There are legal limits on pesticide residues in commercial baby food but these rules don’t apply to fresh fruit and vegetables or other foods. In this case buying organic may be a healthier option.
The Soil Association says an organic diet is particularly important for babies and young children. It argues that Government standards for ‘acceptable’ levels of pesticide residues are set with adults rather than children in mind.
Children may be more vulnerable to these chemicals, as they’re growing rapidly, and they may also be exposed to higher levels because their diet is limited to a few foods. The Soil Association also says that children should eat organic foods to prevent exposing them to GM foods, the long-term effects of which are still unknown.
What about processed organic food?
The arguments for buying processed organic food aren’t as convincing as for fresh organic food. This is because processing destroys some of the residues in fresh food, leaving less in the final product. Pesticide residues have never been found in conventionally produced pasta, for example, so people may question the need to buy organic.
And when it comes to breakfast cereals, non-organic may actually be a better choice for children, as added vitamins and minerals aren’t allowed in organic varieties. Fortified cereals are an important source of micronutrients – particularly iron – for many young children.
But, many processed organic foods, such as children’s ready-meals, baked beans, sausages, crisps and biscuits, still contain high levels of sugar, fat or salt, so they should only be eaten occasionally.
How much does it all cost?
The price of a typical basket of organic food varies considerably depending on where you shop. According to a report in The Independent even a basic seven-item list of typical groceries bought in high street supermarkets can cost organic shoppers £5 more than their non-organic counterparts. So it really is worth shopping around.
Organic producers say that their food is more expensive because organic farms use fewer fertilisers and pesticides than regular farms, so they simply can’t produce as much.
What’s the verdict?
If you can afford to feed your children organic food, there’s no reason not to do so. There are no known risks and many potential benefits, like the potential to prevent cancer. But whether or not you choose organic, there’s plenty of evidence to show that the best diet for a growing child is one based on fruit and vegetables, starchy foods and protein-rich foods; and with as little processed food as possible.
Two mums give opposing views on what they think about organic produce for their kids.
"I don’t give my children organic food. The main reason I don’t buy organic is the cost. And I’m sure organic food isn’t perfect, because of contamination from other farms and everything that’s in the environment. I’m not a great one for cooking, but my children enjoy roast dinners and although they eat some junk food, such as fish fingers and chicken nuggets, they do eat fruit and vegetables. Overall, I think they eat reasonably well."
Vicki Woolley, mum to Julian, 12, Bethany, 5, and Thomas, 4
"I fed my sons a completely organic diet until they were a year old. I give them organic food to try to reduce their exposure to pesticides and additives, and I worry about resistance from all the antibiotics given to farm animals. I want to introduce my children to food that tastes like it’s supposed to, and some organic food definitely has a better flavour. It’s expensive, but you have to pay for quality."
Pauline Boyd, mum to Jude, 2, and Darragh, 18 months
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