Organic? Hormone-Free? Non-GMO? Get the Facts

By Ruchi Kaushik, MD, MPH, FAAP
Assistant Professor, Pediatrics
Director, ComP-CaN (Comprehensive Peds for Complex Needs)
Baylor College of Medicine
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio

For us parents, nourishing your child is one of the most innately primitive experiences. From the wide open baby-bird like mouths of your infant to the look of belly-filled satisfaction on the face of your ever-growing teen, nothing is more rewarding than feeding your child.  But with all of the “healthy” options at the grocery store, how are you to know which choices are truly healthy and worth the extra cost?

What is Organic Food?
Food is labeled “organic” when crops are grown and livestock are raised without the use of synthetic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers), hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, or irradiation. The USDA certifies these foods after organic farmers apply for certification and pass a test and the food has been inspected.  But not all labels are the same:

100% organic:  only organically produced ingredients and processing aids
Organic:  at least 95% organically produced ingredients
Made with organic ingredients:  at least 70% organically produced ingredients
Natural: no artificial ingredients or colors added
Free range: poultry has been allowed access to the outside
No hormones (beef)*: no hormones were used in raising the animals
No antibiotics: animals were raised without the use of antibiotics
Certified: the USDA has officially evaluated the meat product
Chemical-free: This term is not allowed to be used on a label
(*Hormones are not allowed in the raising of hogs or poultry.)

Is Organic Better?
The short answer is no. But the more detailed answer highlights a few differences:

Produce: There is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce.  That said, organic produce contains fewer pesticide residues; as a result, if your child consumes organic produce she will be exposed to fewer pesticides.  What is unclear at this time is whether or not this will improve her health in the long run.

Meat: Raising livestock without the use of antibiotics may prevent your child from acquiring bacteria that are resistant to routine antibiotics that your pediatrician prescribes daily. Antibiotic resistance is a significant issue, and consuming organic meat may be one method at tackling the problem.

Dairy: There is no evidence to suggest that conventional milk contains more bovine (cow) growth hormone than organic milk, and whatever small amount of growth hormone exists is not active in humans. Nutritionally speaking, there is some evidence to suggest that organic milk contains more omega-3 fatty acids and fewer omega-6 fatty acids.  Both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fats, but recent recommendations point to consuming only 5-10% of total calories from omega-6.

GMOs
Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, or micro-organisms in which the DNA has been altered in some way through genetic engineering. At this time, most scientific and other health organizations are firm in their statement that consuming foods made from GMOs is safe. Labeling of GMOs is regulated by the FDA but currently voluntary.  Organic foods do not contain GMOs.

Organic farming is more expensive than conventional farming, and this is definitely reflected in the price tags at the grocery store. It is important to remember that although a few differences have been identified, we still do not know what the long-term effects of choosing organic over conventional are on health.  Ultimately, every family will have to weigh the benefits and costs and decide. What is most important is consuming a healthy diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

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