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This Mother's Day, Thoughts on Food by SafetyNEST Advisor Dr. Nicole Avena

Nicole Avena, PhD: Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Organic vs. Nonorganic Foods:

We hear a lot about the dangers of pesticides and hormones in our food supply, leading many to opt for organic foods, which are supposed to be free of such things. But are they really any more nutritious or safer than nonorganic foods?

To meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, organic crops must be free from pesticides, GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and sewer sludge. In raising organic livestock, like chickens and cows, antibiotics or growth hormones are not used, and the animals are fed organic feed. Pesticides, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), are of particular concern because they can accumulate in our bodies due to their chemical makeup and overall resistance to degradation. The main way in which humans are exposed to POPs in the environment is through our diet.

What are the long-term effects on babies exposed to POPs? Studies suggest that long-term exposure can be detrimental to humans. POPs have been linked to cancer development and neurological problems. Some types of POPs are also endocrine disruptors, which means they can mess with human hormones in ways that can affect baby’s growth and development. POPs start accumulating In our bodies early in life, even in utero. And since they don’t degrade easily, whatever baby picks up along the way he carries with him. The World Health Organization has stated that the potential health effects of POPs, especially among children, warrant global concern.

Hormone injections and antibiotics are often used in conventionally raised livestock to make the animals bigger (meat sells by the weight) and also keep sick animals alive (dead cows are worthless to a farmer). When livestock are slaughtered, all of the steroid hormones (or antibiotics) have not necessarily been metabolized, and some may remain in the muscles, fat, and other organs. This means, as with pesticides, when baby eats nonorganic meat he is ingesting trace amounts of those hormones and antibiotics. And studies have linked the use of hormones in livestock to certain cancers in humans, and also to the earlier onset of puberty that we are seeing these days compared to a generation or two ago. Even though the Food and Drug Administration says the amounts of hormones that remain in the animals are trace, that doesn’t mean these traces can’t affect our bodies. When a prepubescent girl is exposed to estrogen (even in small amounts via food), and she isn’t yet producing it on her own, this can certainly have an effect on her health. More research is needed to better understand and tease apart the long-term implications of eating meats that have been treated with hormones and antibiotics.

So should you try to go 100% organic? Here is where I fall on the issue. Organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious for your baby, but they may be safer. Food companies can get away with using hormones, fertilizers, and antibiotics because the amounts that end up in the food that humans get in the grocery store are below the government-set thresholds. However, as I just mentioned, pesticides can build up over time in baby’s body. And I don’t think we yet know enough about the long-term effects of even small amounts of hormones and antibiotics that our little ones get in meat and dairy products.

It is pretty much impossible, unless you plan to keep baby in a bubble, to have your child eat 100% organic. Nor is it necessary. Some foods are more susceptible than others to retaining residue from fertilizers. So I suggest that you try to buy organic meats and thin-skinned fruits and vegetables–especially those you eat skins and all. Also, try to diversify the sources of protein for your little one, and not rely on meats and dairy so much. You can’t totally protect baby from the harmful chemicals in our environment (there are things we can’t fully control, like water, soil, and the air), but you can minimize their exposure. An excerpt from “What to Feed Your Baby & Toddler” by Nicole M. Avena, PhD, available in stores and on Amazon.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She is a pioneer in the field of food addiction, and it was her seminal research work that jump started this exciting new field of exploration in medicine and nutrition. She is also an expert in diet during pregnancy, and childhood nutrition.


Dr. Avena presently is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and a Visiting Professor in Health Psychology at Princeton University. She has published over 90 scholarly journal articles on topics related to diet, nutrition and overeating, and she frequently presents her research findings at scientific conferences and University symposia. Her best-selling books include, What to Eat When You’re Pregnant (2015, Ten Speed Press) that provides mom’s-to-be with nutritional advice on what to eat to ensure they and their baby are healthy. Her new book, What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler (May 2018), covers nutrition for babies who are just beginning to eat, and offers science-based advice and practical tips on how to get your baby to eat healthy foods, like vegetables. Please contact SafetyNEST if you would like to reach Nicole directly: Alexandra@mysafetynest.org

Dr. Nicole Avena, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Mount Sinai School of Medicine and SafetyNEST Advisor
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