Organic Baby: A Worthy Investment or Budget Buster?
When it comes to organic and natural products, the choices can be dizzying, whether you're standing in the baby food aisle or in front of a wall of diapers. To make the selection process harder, these products often cost more than their conventional counterparts — up to twice as much for baby food and five times as much for crib mattresses. How can you determine which organic and natural products are worth the extra money? Here are some pointers from local dieticians and organic experts.
You Are What You Eat
Pregnant women and young children are in a league of their own when it comes to possible risks associated with food.
"Whenever you're talking about people in rapid growth, that's when risks are the greatest," says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietician and clinical associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. "With conventional foods of any kind, unless organically grown, they are likely to contain some pesticide residue or other contaminant."
Though toxic levels from conventional foods are below limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Hobbs says there is little research available that shows the long-term health effects of such low-level exposure.
However, a 2011 study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health, found that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides is related to lower IQ scores at age 7. Also, using data collected from nearly 1,140 children participating in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Canadian researchers found that children with substantially higher levels of a breakdown product of neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides were twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
In some cases, baby food has tested positive for pesticide residue. To avoid the risk of pesticides in conventional baby food and paying higher prices — up to 50 percent more — for organic options, consider making your own.
Apex mother of three Su Stone uses "The Dirty Dozen" list published by the Environmental Working Group to determine what baby foods to make, which prioritizes produce by levels of pesticide residue. "It would be way too expensive to do everything yourself," she says.
Another cost-saving option is buying produce at farmers markets. "Talk to your local farmer, and even if their food isn't organic, they can tell you how it was grown," Hobbs says. Milk, eggs and meat also follow strict organic guidelines. Some farmers will use organic methods but without undertaking the expense of certification.
If you're considering organic formula, research it carefully, as it may contain nonorganic additives.
The nutritional value of organic vs. conventional food is also up for debate. While a Stanford University study published in September 2012 concludes that organic food has not been found to be more nutritious than conventional food, freshly picked organic produce may pack more of a nutritious punch.
"Local fruits and vegetables can have higher nutritional quality if the products are picked ripe versus green for shipping across the country," says Nancy Creamer, director of N.C. State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
Cloth or Disposable?
Some parents use cloth diapers to reduce their baby's exposure to chemicals in disposable diapers. These chemical culprits include dioxin, which results from the chlorine used to bleach disposable diapers white, and sodium polyacrylate crystals, which are superabsorbent ingredients once linked to toxic shock syndrome among tampon users.
Neither the EPA nor the American Academy of Pediatrics takes a position on cloth vs. disposable diapers. Also, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received no significant reports of health problems, injuries or safety concerns related to disposable diaper use in infants and young children.
If the chemicals in standard disposable diapers concern you, however, consider biodegradable and chemical-free disposables. Expect to pay about five cents more per diaper, however, and some brands are prone to leaks.
Stone prefers cloth, which are available in organic and natural fibers. Otherwise, she says, the chemicals in disposable diapers are "constantly" touching her baby's skin. Fatimah Faraj, manager of Sweetbottoms Baby Boutique in Cary, says using cloth can also cut down on diaper rashes and costs less than disposables in the long run.
Under Your Skin
When it comes to organic expenditures, "Mattresses are number one for me because your baby spends so much time on that surface," says Krista Cathey, owner of Green Pea Baby and Child Boutique in Apex.
Conventional mattresses are often made of foam with chemical fire retardants, then covered in vinyl, which is processed with toxic chemicals. "Think of a shower curtain that smells," Cathey says. "Those chemicals are always releasing. So if you can find a different surface that isn't releasing those chemicals, I just think it's a healthier environment."
Faraj advocates for organic cotton over other materials such as polyester. An organic crib mattress can cost around $260 — about five times that of a conventional mattress. Lullaby Earth offers an alternative nontoxic line, starting at about $160.
When purchasing clothing, keep in mind that chemical residue can be washed out, so organic may not be necessary.
On Your Skin
The Environmental Working Group recommends using fewer personal care products, such as lotions or diaper creams, on babies and children because they are exposed to more contaminants in everyday products than adults and are "typically less capable of fending off chemical assaults."
Faraj cautions that just because a product's packaging may promote that it contains doesn't contain dyes or fragrances, "that doesn't mean no chemicals." Read the label closely to make sure a product is made with natural ingredients.
Dr. Rebecca Todd Bell, a dermatologist at Central Dermatology Center in Chapel Hill, suggests using olive oil or coconut oil for cradle cap. Coconut oil works for diaper rash as well. "It's so soothing and gentle. It's also good for baby massages and is very rarely irritating," she says.
Try zinc oxide paste for diaper rash rather than conventional diaper cream, which usually includes zinc oxide as its main ingredient, but also contains fragrances and chemicals.
If you're contemplating going natural, don't feel pressured to replace everything all at once. "Buy one thing here, a couple of things there," Faraj counsels. Be confident that the approach you take will make the most sense for your baby, the environment and your wallet.
WHAT IS ORGANIC?
For something to be labeled organic, it must follow standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Crops certified organic are produced without using synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering. Organically certified livestock was given access to the outdoors, received 100 percent organic feed, was produced in conditions that met animal health and welfare standards, and were absent of growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic products must also be produced using methods that contribute to protecting the environment.
The Dirty Dozen
The Environmental Working Group issues the "Dirty Dozen," as well as a "Clean Fifteen" list, to help shoppers decide when it's best to buy organic produce. These rankings are based on results from government testing for pesticide residue on produce as it is commonly eaten, such as after being washed or peeled.
In 2012 the group expanded its "Dirty Dozen" list to include green beans and kale/greens, which are often contaminated with highly toxic organophosphate insecticides.
In order from the most to least pesticides:
Sweet bell peppers
Elizabeth Oliver is a freelance writer and mother of two girls.