Pregnancy changes a gal in many ways, but one of the biggest adjustments typically happens in the kitchen. Suddenly, you’re very aware of what you’re eating, where that food came from and whether it’s a good choice for your growing babe. Because you can’t deny the nutritional benefits of fruits and veggies, you’ll likely see an influx of them in your diet, along with a decent amount of calcium-rich dairy, whole grains and lean proteins. (And yes, the occasional indulgent craving. You’re allowed to give in every once in a while!) Most moms know what a healthy diet consists of, but many still have one important question: Should I go organic during pregnancy?
The word “organic” is tossed around frequently these days, but how exactly are organic foods different from their nonorganic counterparts? Kristi King, MPH, RDN, CNSC, LD, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and dietician at Texas Children’s Hospital, says, “The main difference between organic and nonorganic foods is how they are farmed.”
Nonorganic foods are farmed by traditional methods, typically involving the use of synthetic pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers. Chemical weed killer is also commonly used in conventional crops. Animals on a nonorganic farm are given antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth.
Organic foods are farmed using natural fertilizers (such as manure or compost), and pests and diseases are controlled via pesticides from natural sources. Organic farms might conduct more sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to curb weed growth rather than rely on chemicals. Organically raised animals are often allowed access to the outdoors, enjoy organic feed and are treated with disease-preventing methods such as rotational grazing and cleaner housing.
While the thought of unpleasant pesticides is often what first comes to mind when considering organics, it isn’t the only reason moms-to-be might decide to switch their diets. Many people appreciate the environmental benefits of organic farming practices, which tend to reduce pollution and conserve water and soil quality. Others hope to avoid food additives, processing aids and fortifying agents commonly found in nonorganic foods. When it comes to nutritional value, however, the swap to organic is more of a lifestyle choice than a nutritional one.
“There are no scientific studies showing organic foods contain higher quantities of nutrients, so pregnant women will get the same nutritional benefit no matter their choice,” notes King. The nutritional value of any food can vary greatly from one piece to the next. For example, two tomatoes resting next to each other in the grocery can have varying nutrient levels, depending on everything from how ripe they were when picked to their genetic makeup to the weather. An organic item might actually be proven to have a lower nutritional value than its nonorganic counterpart, but the opposite could also be true.
When purely looking at nutritional value, it’s the old “six of one, half a dozen of the other” conundrum. The benefits of organic come more from the overall package than the nutrients in a single piece of fruit.
Pick and choose
If organics have a downside, it’s definitely their price; they tend to be more expensive than conventionally grown foods, sometimes significantly so. If you’re on a tight budget, you might choose to incorporate some organic foods into your diet but buy some conventional varieties too. “If you want to eat organic but can’t afford it, go organic with a few of the staple foods that you eat most often; you can supplement your diet with traditionally farmed produce and meats,” recommends King. You can also base your organic choices using the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of the “Dirty Dozen”—those foods that carry the highest levels of pesticide residue—and “Clean Fifteen”—those that carry the lowest.
King also reminds expectant moms, “The most important thing is for a mom to eat a variety of foods in order to get the proper nutrients she needs for herself and her baby.” If those can’t all be organic, that’s OK. While organic food carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than conventional produce, even residues on conventional products rarely exceed government safety thresholds. And both foods hold equal nutritional value for your baby-to-be.
Another budget tip from King: “Make sure to buy produce that is in season—it will be much cheaper.” Locally grown produce, like what you’d find at your neighborhood farmers market, might also be easier on the wallet.
When it comes to produce, one aspect is even more important than organic versus nonorganic: how you wash it. “Wash, wash and wash those fruits and vegetables!” King says. It’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses. A good scrub in tap water is typically deemed effective, although some folks prefer an acidic solution, such as a vinegar wash, or a prepared solution from the store. Either way, rubbing or brushing the vegetables while washing (rather than just rinsing or soaking) is preferable.
And keep in mind, King notes, that organic foods need to be cleaned just as thoroughly. (They might have been fertilized in manure, after all!) “Be sure to handle foods properly, wash your produce well and practice safe cooking methods to reduce your risk of foodborne illnesses,” she says.
As with most things in life, making the move to organics isn’t a cut-and-dry decision, and different things work for different people. “Going organic is definitely a lifestyle choice and one that should be thought through carefully,” advises King. Whether you decide it’s right for you, be sure to provide your baby with a healthy, well-balanced diet and supplement with a doctor-recommended prenatal vitamin. The most important thing you can give your baby is a good start!