Bringing Up Baby Organically

There's a movement under way to go green – starting from the first days of life.

Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on August 27, 2015 Woman with baby in cherry orchard
From the WebMD Archives

It's called "baby organics," and it's a growing movement among parents of newborns who want to go green -- and we're not just talking vegetables!

The idea is to not only fill your baby's tummy with organic foods, but also to make everything from baby clothes and diapers to bedding, nursery furniture, carpeting, and more organic.

And many parents are embracing the movement with gusto.

In a survey recently conducted by, a majority of the women they talked to say having a baby was a powerful catalyst for embracing the eco-friendly life. In its online store, BabyCenter noted a 211% increase in the sales of eco-friendly products, including chemical-free diapers.

At the same time, companies that manufacture natural cleaning products -- like Holy Cow -- report their business is exploding with new moms looking to keep the nursery spotless and chemical-free.

But perhaps the biggest eco splash is being made in the baby food aisle. The Organic Trade Association reports a growth of more than 22% in the organic food market overall, with sales reaching nearly 17 billion in 2006. Whole Foods Market has reportedly tripled space allotted to organic baby foods, and in 2006, Gerber replaced its Tender Harvest brand with a line called Gerber Organics -- ostensibly in response to consumer demand.

Meanwhile, smaller baby food companies, like Plum Organics, Happy Baby, and Home Made Baby (which provides organic Kosher baby food), have developed into mini-empires, all thanks to the new trend of baby organics.

But does any of it really matter -- and is there any science to show that a "green baby" is any healthier than the kid wearing drugstore diapers or eating regular old peas and carrots from a jar?


What Does Going Green Really Mean?

In the food industry, the definition of what is considered organic is clear. Since 2002, any food that carries a "certified organic" label must be at least 95% organic, that is produced and processed without most conventional pesticides or other harmful chemicals, additives, or hormones. Conversely, labels touting words like "natural," "free range," or "hormone-free" do not necessarily mean a food is produced organically.

But when it comes to other, even more pricey organic products like diapers, baby clothes, bedding, and furniture, the waters get a little murky. There are no established "organic" standards and no one to answer to when false claims are made.

Some manufacturers interchange the terms "organic" and "natural" -- sometimes leading parents to assume something is safer than it is. For example, bedding that is made from all cotton -- a natural fabric -- can be labeled as "natural" -- but it can still be grown using pesticides and processed using a variety of chemicals.

But even when a product is believably certifiable, the question remains, does it make a difference? The answer, it seems, depends a lot on whom you ask.

According to Frank Greer, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, going organic has no real advantages.

"I believe there is almost no evidence to document any real health advantages to using these products for children," says Greer, who is also spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Pediatrician Sophie Balk, MD, is more open to the idea, but she says studies are still too limited to know for sure. And she doesn't routinely advocate organics in her own practice.

"There are few, if any, scientifically proven health benefits to buying organic foods, or any other 'organic' products," says Balk, a pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City and the former chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health.

Does Organics Equal Common Sense?

But even without hard science, other experts say going organic simply makes good sense. Pediatrician Lawrence Rosen, MD, says one reason is that anything that reduces baby's exposure to nasty chemicals of any kind will have important health benefits.

"There's still definitely a gap between what we know to be true scientifically and what we theoretically think is true, but either way, avoiding even potentially damaging compounds, particularly with babies, can never be a bad thing, and it simply makes good common sense," says Rosen. Rosen is section chief of the division of pediatric integrative medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center and medical advisor to Deirdre Imus Center for Pediatric Oncology.

Moreover, he says that while we may have less evidence of the good that "going organic" can accomplish, we do have very strong evidence of the kind of harm that is being done through nonorganic living.

"There are advantages to doing something, and then there are also risks and costs to not doing it. And certainly, there are theoretical environmental compounds or toxins that have negative health consequences, either leading to cell damage or cell death or, down the road, cancer, heart disease, and neurological changes," says Rosen.

Among those compounds, he says, are the very chemicals used in the growing or processing much of our food supply - including baby food.

Going back as far as 1995, the Environmental Working Group reported that, in independent laboratory tests, 16 different pesticides, including three carcinogens, were identified in baby foods manufactured by eight different companies. The CDC reports that a main source of pesticide exposure for U.S. children is, in fact, from the food they eat.

Complicating matters further: Experts say that infants and babies are far more susceptible to even the smallest chemical assaults.

"In infants and toddlers, the brain and nervous system is much more susceptible to neurological toxins. There are literally anatomical and physiological reasons why there's more of an effect with a smaller dose, plus we now believe there are both cumulative and synergistic effects, so that small but repetitive doses over time may have a significant impact," says Rosen.

Studies seem to bear this out. In research published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2003, researchers found that in urine samples taken from children aged 2 to 4, pesticide byproducts were six times higher in those who were reported by their parents to eat nonorganic foods compared with those who ate an organic diet.

Seeking Greener Pastures

While organic foods represent one category of "going green," the movement also encompasses limiting exposure to chemicals and toxins that "off gas" -- have a kind of chemical emission that can emanate from products like bedding and linens, mattresses, pressed wood furniture, even room paint and carpeting.

In addition to any long-term health risks associated with early chemical exposures, evidence is mounting of more immediate threats, including environmental asthma.

"If a child is susceptible and easily irritated by chemical exposures, the ongoing inflammation in their lungs caused by these exposures can trigger an environmental allergy," says NYU pediatric allergist Jonathan Field, MD, director of the allergy and asthma clinic at NYU Medical Center/Bellevue in New York City.

Toss in a genetic background with a potential for allergic reactions, and mitigating circumstances such as a premature birth requiring ventilator use as well as parents who smoke, and, Field says, environmental exposures become an even greater threat.

"If parents are trying to narrow the playing field as to what their children are exposed to at an early age -- when lungs are developing -- there is something to be said for less exposure to these irritants," says Field.

Going Organic: What You Should Know

For many parents, the decision of whether to go organic is more one of economics than eco-conscience. Simply put, products that carry labels such as "organic" or even "natural" can be a lot pricier.

According to a recent analysis in Consumer Reports, organic baby food costs about 25% more per jar than the nonorganic type -- an increase of about 17 cents per 2.5-ounce jar.

Likewise, a case of 144 Huggies disposable diapers sells for about $35.00 -- while a case of 152 "green" diapers by Tender Care sells for $55.00, a difference of about 12 cents more per diaper.

Price discrepancies are even greater for "soft" goods -- like baby clothes and nursery-wear. For example, Toys "R" Us sells a baby towel set for $9.99 and an "organic" one for $22.99.

What's a parent to do? One solution, according to Consumer Reports, is to shop around and, when you find a good deal, buy in bulk, particularly when it comes to organic baby food. Some companies, such as Earth's Best, discount prices if you purchase baby food by the case -- offering up to 5 cents less per jar when you buy 24 jars at a time. Other companies offer similar savings.

Another option is to shop local for organic groceries and, using a food processor, make your own organic baby food.

When it comes to items such as blankets, baby clothes, bedding, and even organic room decor, Rosen says it's a bit harder to know if price comparisons will really pay off. Although discount and chain stores frequently sell "natural" or even "organic" baby goods at far lower prices than specialty boutiques or "green" stores, because this part of the industry remains unregulated, he says it's hard to know if that bargain you're getting is really a bargain.

He says that even when it comes to Mother Nature, "It's often a case of buyer beware."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Frank Greer, MD, professor, University of Wisconsin; spokesman, American Academy of Pediatrics. Sophie Balk, MD, pediatrician, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City; former chairwoman, American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health. Lawrence Rosen, MD, section chief, division of pediatric integrative medicine, Hackensack University Medical Center; medical advisor, Deirdre Imus Center for Pediatric Oncology. Jonathan Field, MD, director, allergy and asthma clinic, NYU Medical Center/Bellevue, New York City. FDA: "Explanatory Data on Furan in Food," April 28, 2004. CDC: "National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals," March 2003. Curl, C. Environmental Health Perspectives; vol 111: pp 377-382.

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