San Jose Mercury News
by Alison F. Takemura
Organic food matters to Camila Torres, so grappling with its higher prices has made her resourceful.
When the Boulder Creek resident makes baby food for her 1-year-old, Liliana, she tosses prepackaged, frozen, organic vegetables from Trader Joe’s into a blender, adds a little water, then purées and warms up the mush before “airplaning” a spoonful into her daughter’s mouth.
Torres wants her two girls to grow up on organic food — and frozen products help her afford it.
“I try to find any way within my means to keep potentially harmful things from entering their little bodies,” said Torres, 28, an independent contractor who works with a company that captions videos.
A new scientific study supports her instincts, documenting that organic food can substantially lower pesticide exposure in children from low-income families in both urban and rural areas.
But traces of pesticides were higher than in previous studies involving middle-income, suburban children, suggesting that kids from cities and farming communities may be getting exposed via their environments as well as their diets.
For the peer-reviewed study, researchers at the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health analyzed pesticides and their breakdown products in the urine of low-income Latino children — 20 from Oakland’s Fruitvale district and 20 from the rural Salinas Valley.
Researchers analyzed pesticides and their breakdown products in the children’s urine for four days on their normal diet, seven days on an organic one and five more days after reverting to a conventional diet. For the organic phase, the researchers replaced the children’s normal food with organic products: fruits and vegetables, as well as items such as bread, eggs, juices and snacks.
Comparing a conventional diet with an organic one, the researchers found that traces of pesticides dropped substantially during the organic phase of the study. Breakdown products declined up to 49 percent for a class of pesticides called organophosphates.
Past research links these insecticides to health problems, including respiratory disease and higher rates of attention deficit disorder in children.
A 2011 study by the same UC Berkeley research group found that when pregnant women were exposed to organophosphates, their children’s IQs were on average seven points lower than those of other 7-year-olds.
Whether the pesticide levels found in the latest research levels are harmful is an open question, according to one of the study’s lead authors, Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor of applied environmental health at the University of Maryland.
Regulatory standards simply don’t exist for these chemical traces, said Liza Oates, a food and health researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. And a lack of sufficient data makes it impossible to know whether the levels are safe, she said.
“The way the system is set up, the onus is very much on the consumer,” Oates said.
Quirós-Alcalá underscored that the results of the study don’t mean parents should avoid giving their children fruits and vegetables that aren’t certified organic.
“We’re having an obesity epidemic,” she said. “We need to give kids a more well-balanced diet.”
To rinse off potentially harmful residues, she recommends washing produce “really well” before eating it.
The study also revealed that different demographic groups aren’t exposed to pesticides equally. Previously, studies have shown that organic food can cut pesticide levels to undetectable amounts in middle-income, largely white kids in suburban neighborhoods, Quirós-Alcalá said. But in the new study of poorer Latino children, levels of the chemicals lingered. The additional exposure could be coming from their environment — for example, drifting from fields nearby or sprayed to fight insect infestations in substandard housing, she said.
The popularity of organic food in the U.S. is on the rise. According to a 2015 report by the Department of Agriculture, sales from organic farms have climbed 72 percent since 2008.
But cost can deter parents from totally adopting an organic diet. According to Consumer Reports, organic food typically costs 47 percent more than conventional food.
“I really much prefer organic, but what stops me is the price,” said Torres, the Boulder Creek mother. “I hope to switch to totally organic when my (economic) situation changes, or the price drops.”
For now, she not only relies on less expensive, frozen produce, but also buys organic versions of products more likely to carry the risk of high pesticide exposure. While she may opt for some conventional produce, “I don’t buy anything nonorganic like berries, where you eat the peel,” Torres said. “I try to balance the price like that.”
Mayenne Donkervoort, a farmer at the organic Windmill Farm in Moss Landing, said she thinks organic food is worth the expense.
“The way my partner and I think of it is it’s our priority,” said the mother of two. And organics aren’t expensive compared with some items people commonly buy, she contended, pointing to a small yellow squash that she’s selling at the farmers market.
“That costs 50 cents to a dollar,” she said. “But we spend $3 to $4.50 on a latte.”
Oates said she recommends that consumers look for products where their dollars can buy the most protection. For example, an annual list produced by the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., spotlights the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of persistent pesticides detected by the USDA: the so-called Dirty Dozen.
“If you’re going to buy those foods, probably buy those organic,” Oates said.
The Environmental Working Group also puts out a list of produce with the lowest potential pesticide exposure: the “Clean 15.” If your household budget is an issue in food selection, then organic versions of those foods are less important to buy, Oates said.
Researcher Quirós-Alcalá said she would like more studies done — particularly on children exposed to multiple pesticides at once — to help parents decide what to feed their families.
“Children’s research is key,” she said. “They’re very vulnerable to exposure because they’re still developing.”
THE DIRTY DOZEN
The vegetables and fruits most contaminated with pesticides:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas
- Sweet bell peppers
THE CLEAN 15
The vegetables and fruits least contaminated with pesticides:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet potatoesEnvironmental Working Group