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Children Produce Growth in Organic Food Market

Consumer demand is rising with parents' concern about pesticides in youngsters' diets. Mainstream industry sees no need to switch.

November 13, 2005|Libby Quaid | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Erin O'Neal has two daughters and a fridge stocked with organic cheese, milk, fruit and vegetables in her Annapolis, Md., home.

She is among the increasing number of parents who buy organic goods to help keep their children's diets free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or genetically engineered food.

"The pesticide issue just scares me -- it wigs me out to think about the amount of chemicals that might be going into my kid," said O'Neal, 36.

Since last year, sales of organic baby food have jumped nearly 18%, double the overall growth of organic food sales, according to the marketing information company ACNielsen.

As demand has risen, organic food for children has popped up at more places than just natural food stores.

For example, Earth's Best baby food, a mainstay in Whole Foods and Wild Oats markets, just reached a national distribution deal with Toys R Us and Babies R Us. Gerber is selling organic baby food under its Tender Harvest label. Stonyfield Farm's YoBaby yogurt can be found in supermarkets everywhere.

The concern is that children are more vulnerable to toxins in their diets, said Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician in Northern California. Their brains and organs are forming, and they eat more for their size than do grown-ups, Greene said.

"Pound for pound, they get higher concentrations of pesticides than adults do," said Greene, who promotes organic food in his books and on his website, www.drgreene.com.

New Environmental Protection Agency-funded research seems to support this. Pesticide levels in children who were switched from regular to organic diets plunged almost immediately and remained imperceptible until the children returned to conventional food.

"We didn't expect that to drop in such dramatic fashion," said Emory University's Chensheng Lu, who led the study. Lu's findings will be published in February in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Scientists are still trying to figure out how pesticides affect children, Lu said, but he noted that it took years to prove the health hazards of lead.

Conventional food is considered safe by the government. Still, the uncertainty is leading parents to switch to organic. Many are making their own baby food from organic ingredients.

"Maybe that has the reputation of being difficult, but it doesn't have to be, and once you get into the habit of doing something regularly, it gets to be easier," said Jody Villecco, a nutritionist for Whole Foods.

In a traveling lecture series for Whole Foods and Mothering magazine, Villecco demonstrates by shaving a peeled banana with a knife to make mush -- "There, we just made baby food," she said. She recommends that people make baby food in big batches and freeze it in ice cube trays.

Eating organic is definitely not cheap. But parents have options if they can't afford the food or don't want to search for it or make it: Buy fruit and vegetables known to have lower pesticide residues.

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington advocacy organization, has produced a guide to pesticide levels in fruit and vegetables commonly sold in grocery stores, basing the findings on data from the federal Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.

The guide says the lowest pesticide levels are found in asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papaya, pineapples and sweet peas.

The highest pesticide levels are found in apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.

A downloadable version of the guide can be found at www.foodnews.org.

Industry representatives say conventional food is safe.

"There are some people in the organic food industry and the environmental industry who have unfortunately scared parents into thinking you have to turn to organic sources for baby food, based on claims that have no basis in science or fact," said Jay Vroom, spokesman for CropLife America, an industry group. "The products my industry produces are safe" for everyone.

Besides baby food, snacks are also a rapidly growing segment of organic fare, Organic Trade Assn. says.

Snacks are a priority for Susan Guegan, a 44-year-old mother of four boys in Boulder, Colo. Guegan made their food from scratch when they were babies. Now she buys organic versions of cookies and hot dogs.

"They love Oreos," she said. "They'll say, 'Can we get this?' I'm like, 'Can you read me the ingredients?' They'll laugh and try to say some of them. I'll say, 'You can put that back.' "

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