We have to eat, and we have to feed our kids, right?  That means all of us are concerned about food.  In fact, one mother recently wrote into me, asking,

Toxins in foods is a topic I would like more information on.

Do I have to buy organic? The mom guilt over serving canned veggies over cooked from scratch is real (But they have to be better than fast food, right? – I hope).

…Just some of the questions that run through my mind on a semi-regular basis.  Are there easy and inexpensive ways to insure our food is safe?

I hear you, momma!  First of all, I can tell by what you’ve told me that you’re doing a great job and that you’re really thinking about what’s best for your kids.

And no wonder you’re stressed!  With food, there are so many things to think about, and so much is marketed to us.  How do we pick what to buy?

My plan here is to give you some information and help you make the choices that are best for you and your family.  We’re going to do this in stages, so for now, let’s start with the first part of your question:  Organic versus “conventional” foods.  Usually, when people ask about organic food, they want to know about pesticides (we can cover nutrient content in another post if you want).  Parents are concerned about whether or not pesticides can really affect their kids.  The answer is complex, but the best I really know to say is, “Potentially, yes.”

I’ve spent about a decade of my life learning about insecticides (pesticides designed to kill bugs), what foods they’re found in, and what health effects they can contribute to.  While there are several classes of insecticides, they all target the nervous system (which includes the brain).

The most important thing to know is that insecticides affect young children (both before and after birth) even more strongly than adults.  This is for several reasons, but the most important one is that young children and fetuses are undergoing a TON of brain development, “laying down track,” so to speak.  If something goes awry in such an early, important stage, the effects are going to be much more long-reaching than it would be in adults, whose nervous system is already pretty-well laid out.

Over the past decade, so much research has come out linking insecticide exposure with kids’ behavioral and/or mental health problems, including ADHD, autism, and depression, behavioral regulation, and emotional control. While some of these studies have been with kids with high pesticide exposures (for example, kids of farm workers), many studies are with children with more typical exposure levels. The point isn’t to scare you, but to let you know that it is important to minimize exposures.


So how do we avoid insecticides in food?  Buying organic food might be an option, but it’s expensive, and to be honest, organic does not automatically equal pesticide-free. And sometimes price-point isn’t the only thing keeping you away from organic.  I remember once before I had children, I gave a presentation about insecticides in food to a group of college students.  As I always do during these talks, I pointed out that pesticides can even affect kids in the womb when their mother ingests them.  After the talk, one young woman asked me what I would eat if I were ever pregnant.  I thought for a bit and then said I would try to eat as much organic food as possible, imagining lots of fresh, colorful produce.

A year or so later, I actually got pregnant.  Those first several weeks with General Leia growing inside me, I was violently ill all. the. time.  My husband could walk in the door bringing in food (exactly the thing I asked for!), and I would immediately run to the bathroom to be sick.  It was the worst.  When I finally started accepting a little bit of food again, it was tortilla chips, Ramen noodles, and boxed mac and cheese for several weeks.  So much for that beautiful organic diet!

Assuming you even have access to organic (and can stomach it, unlike me when I was pregnant), it matters more for some foods than others.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the dirty dozen?  These are the twelve types of produce with the most pesticides on them.  Unfortunately, it seems like most of my favorite produce is on this list!  So even if you don’t buy organic often, you might should do so for your spinach, strawberries and tomatoes.

On the other hand, pesticides aren’t such a big deal for other foods.  For example, even if bananas were sprayed with insecticide, you peel them before you eat them, right?  Insecticides don’t penetrate banana peels, so after you prep them, most of the pesticide is gone.

And then there’s the clean fifteen.  This is the Environmental Working Group’s list of produce least likely to have pesticide on them.  Woo for avocados being relatively pesticide free!

Regardless of if you buy organic or conventional foods, many food prep steps can actually reduce pesticide load.  Washing your produce can help some (make sure you scrub!), as can peeling fruit.  But you probably remember your parents telling you when you were a kid to eat the apple peel. “It contains the most vitamins,” they’d tell you.  That’s true too, so peeling your produce may remove most pesticides, but it’ll also remove what you need most from your food.  Cooking your food can also break down pesticides.  And while some vitamins are broken down along with those pesticides when you cook food, other nutrients are released by cooking, so it can be a win-win.

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