Organic from the Start: An Early Investment in Our Children’s Health

Organic from the Start: An Early Investment in Our Children’s Health

As moms and parents, we constantly face so many debatable decisions each day regarding our young children: Cry it out or not? Hands-off parenting or helicopter parenting? Let them have the treat they beg for in the grocery or be the strict mom again? These decisions often feel draining when it seems there is no clear “right” answer — But the one decision I never wavered on is the decision to choose organic food products as much as possible for my children from day 1 — or rather T-9 months.

As an Integrative Pediatrician and mother to 3 young children, I am very concerned about the early life health dangers of ingesting pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other toxic substances non-organic food may contain. The health risks appear more pronounced the earlier in life a person is exposed to these substances, given that the nervous system is in a vulnerable stage of development prenatally, during infancy, and in early childhood. 

When a food is certified USDA Organic, it means the ingredients are grown without using toxic and persistent pesticides, sewage sludge, or synthetic fertilizers. It also means that antibiotics or growth hormones are not given to animals. These principles are significant when we are considering what to put in our bodies, particularly at the earliest stages of brain and body development. 

There is growing evidence supporting the consumption of organic foods from the start, given the accumulating scientific studies demonstrating that our youngest family members face augmented risks from exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides. So far, a majority of the studies looking at the brain effects of pesticide exposure have focused on the relationship between prenatal exposure and cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children.1 Because rapid brain development continues throughout infancy and into childhood, the postnatal period is also assumed to be vulnerable to neurotoxic exposures, in addition to the prenatal period.2 Accumulating studies support a possible relationship between pesticide exposures during both of these critical developmental stages. 

With regards to prenatal effects, increased concentrations of pesticide metabolites in pregnancy have been associated with poor cognitive development3, attention problems4, and diminished IQ5 in children. These findings are consistent with another study focusing on the prenatal period, where it was discovered that the umbilical cord concentration of a certain pesticide, was associated with delayed cognitive development6, lower IQ7, and diminished working memory8 in children. Preliminary studies have also suggested that prenatal exposure to pesticides may increase the risk of autism.910 Overall, there is quite a bit of data suggesting prenatal exposure to pesticides is associated with childhood neurodevelopmental issues, whereas research into postnatal exposure effects is more limited.11

With regards to postnatal exposures, associations have been found between children’s urine concentrations of pesticide metabolites and learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and ADHD.1213141516 A 2019 review of the relevant literature to date suggests a linkage between low level pesticide exposure both prenatally and postnatally and the development of ADHD and autism. However, further studies are needed to confirm conclusive relationships.17

Even though the research around consuming non-organic food paints a grim picture for child health and development, it is never too late to make different, healthier choices that can impact children’s health positively. We know that when an infant or child consumes organic foods, the level of pesticides in his or her body decreases. This has been demonstrated in a number of studies18192021 and most recently in a 2019 study, which concluded that following an organic diet, even just for 1 week, results in significant reductions of several pesticide metabolites in the urine.22

Here are some of my top tips around choosing organic nutrition from the start of infancy:

  1. Breast-feeding moms may want to consider consuming organic food as much as possible, given that pesticides can also be transmitted to infants via breastmilk. The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists are great resources to help you prioritize buying organic food based on the produce that contains the highest and lowest amounts of pesticide residue.
  2. I’m an advocate for breast-feeding when possible, but there are many moms who aren’t able to breastfeed for various reasons, aren’t interested in breastfeeding, or struggle to maintain a fully breastmilk diet for their baby during the early months of life. I would recommend having an organic formula on hand at home just in case you need it, so you don’t have to rely on the non-organic infant formula samples that are often given to families at the hospital.
  3. Don’t be afraid to raise the topic of organic nutrition and organic infant formula with your pediatrician if you want more information about the health benefits of choosing organic from the start. I find that many pediatricians may not know about organic formula alternatives to the conventional brands or may not proactively be communicating about them to families.

Choosing organic from the start is a proactive early investment in a child’s health that may seem costly up front but may result in health cost-savings in the long-run and a healthier, happier child. I don’t think we can put a price on this. I also love having some decisions I don’t have to second-guess as a mom.  

Research & Resources

  1. Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017;16(1):111. ↩︎
  2. Grandjean P, Landrigan PJ. Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals. Lancet. 2006;368(9553):2167–78. ↩︎
  3. Eskenazi B, Marks AR, Bradman A, Harley K, Barr DB, Johnson C, Morga N, Jewell NP. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican-American children. Environ Health Perspect. 2007;115(5):792–798. ↩︎
  4. Marks AR, Harley K, Bradman A, Kogut K, Barr DB, Johnson C, Calderon N, Eskenazi B. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and attention in young Mexican-American children: the CHAMACOS study. Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118(12):1768–1774. ↩︎
  5. Bouchard MF, Chevrier J, Harley KG, Kogut K, Vedar M, Calderon N, Trujillo C, Johnson C, Bradman A, Barr DB, et al. Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and IQ in 7-year-old children. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(8):1189–1195. ↩︎
  6. Rauh VA, Garfinkel R, Perera FP, Andrews HF, Hoepner L, Barr DB, Whitehead R, Tang D, Whyatt RW. Impact of prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure on neurodevelopment in the first 3 years of life among inner-city children. Pediatrics. 2006;118(6):e1845–e1859. ↩︎
  7. Rauh VA, Garfinkel R, Perera FP, Andrews HF, Hoepner L, Barr DB, Whitehead R, Tang D, Whyatt RW. Impact of prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure on neurodevelopment in the first 3 years of life among inner-city children. Pediatrics. 2006;118(6):e1845–e1859. ↩︎
  8. Rauh V, Arunajadai S, Horton M, Perera F, Hoepner L, Barr DB, Whyatt R. Seven-year neurodevelopmental scores and prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide. Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(8):1196–1201. ↩︎
  9. Lyall K,  Croen LA, Sjödin A, et al. Polychlorinated biphenyl and organochlorine pesticide concentrations in maternal mid-pregnancy serum samples: association with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. Environ Health Perspect 2017;125:474-80. ↩︎
  10. Roberts, J.R., Dawley, E.H. & Reigart, J.R. Children’s low-level pesticide exposure and associations with autism and ADHD: a review. Pediatr Res 85, 234–241 (2019). ↩︎
  11. Sapbamrer, R. & Hongsibsong. Effects of prenatal and postnatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides on child neurodevelopment in different age groups: a systematic review. S. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2019) 26: 18267. ↩︎
  12. Quiros-Alcala L, Mehta S, Eskenazi B. Pyrethroid pesticide exposure and parental report of learning disability and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in U.S. children: NHANES 1999-2002. Environ Health Perspect. 2014;122(12):1336–1342. ↩︎
  13. Oulhote Y, Bouchard MF. Urinary metabolites of organophosphate and Pyrethroid pesticides and behavioral problems in Canadian children. Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11–12):1378–1384. ↩︎
  14. Wagner-Schuman M, Richardson JR, Auinger P, Braun JM, Lanphear BP, Epstein JN, Yolton K, Froehlich TE. Association of pyrethroid pesticide exposure with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in a nationally representative sample of U.S. children. Environ Health. 2015;14(1):44. ↩︎
  15. Lee DH. Association of serum concentrations of persistent organic pollutants with the prevalence of learning disability and attention deficit disorder. Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health, 2007;61(7): 591-6. ↩︎
  16. Von Ehrenstein Ondine S, Ling Chenxiao, Cui Xin, Cockburn Myles, Park Andrew S, Yu Fei et al. Prenatal and infant exposure to ambient pesticides and autism spectrum disorder in children: population based case-control study BMJ 2019; 364 :l962. ↩︎
  17. Roberts, J.R., Dawley, E.H. & Reigart, J.R. Children’s low-level pesticide exposure and associations with autism and ADHD: a review. Pediatr Res 85, 234–241 (2019). ↩︎
  18. Bradman, A., et al., 2015. Effect of organic diet intervention on pesticide exposures in young children living in low-income urban and agricultural communities. Environ. Health Perspect. 123, 1086–1093. ↩︎
  19. Curl, C.L., et al., 2003. Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets. Environ. Health Perspect. 111, 377–382. ↩︎
  20. Göen, T., et al., 2016. Efficiency control of dietary pesticide intake reduction by human biomonitoring. Int. J. Hyg. Environ. Health. ↩︎
  21. Oates, L., et al., 2014. Reduction in urinary organophosphate pesticide metabolites in adults after a week-long organic diet. Environ. Res. 132, 105–111. ↩︎
  22. Hyland C, et al. Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary pesticide levels in U.S. children and adults. Environ Res. 2019;171:568-75. ↩︎